The Stanford Prison Experiment

The time is 1971. The place is a fake prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Two dozen students have agreed, for 15 bucks a day, to play the roles of guards and inmates. It’s understood that they are being watched. Which is not the same thing as being supervised. They don’t know where this is going, but we do because by now it’s literally a textbook case. Where it’s going is abuse, revolt, madness, and a bracing suggestion that tyranny really is just a matter of inertia. Later — and this is a nice oughta-be-a-movie touch — the lone whistleblower becomes the mastermind’s wife. The movie version of the Stanford Prison Experiment was directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, from Tim Talbott’s script. Billy Crudup plays the aforementioned mastermind, psych prof Philip Zimbardo, with creative facial hair, studied South Bronx accent, and Olivia Thirlby as his former student and watchful conscience Christina Maslach. Most worth watching is Michael Angarano as that self-selected alpha guard who by his own admission felt partial to impersonating the cruel warden from Cool Hand Luke, but might not even have thought to do so without first being issued a pair of reflective sunglasses. Thing is, in the initial recruitment interviews, this same kid said he’d actually rather be a prisoner, because “nobody likes guards.” But he got the other role, thanks to a coin flip. So is that it? Start with guards and inmates, pretty much automatically get sadists and supplicants? Like the experiment, the movie is rigorous in some ways and dubious in others. That’s what makes it interesting. Sometimes Alvarez strains for a cerebrally creepy aura, but he and Talbott are clever about embedding familiar points of critique. Zimbardo pried open a window into institutional inhumanity, through which was visible not just the banality of evil but its apparent latency in middle-class college kids. Aside from verifiably accurate production design, there’s also something true in how young and vulnerable these volunteers seem. Giggles, reflexive hazing, a shared sense of playing dress-up — too soon it all gives way. Unbecomingly for the rest of us, the giving way is exactly what we’re here to watch.