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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Power Corrupts
by Donald Levit

From his Brief Encounters, Dick Cavett chose to read passages about obligatory photographs at Yale initiations -- nude, full frontal and back and a side view -- ending with the comment that over years absolutely no one had objected to authority and this invasion of privacy rights. In Kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, Nikolaus Wachsmann observes that, when SS members replaced “amiable local policemen” in camps originally for political opposition, they immediately murdered four prisoners to demonstrate their unlimited power.

At Stanford University in 1971, a little-known now notorious “experiment” was called off after six of its projected twenty days. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the third dramatization of that descent into probing Nietzsche’s misunderstood Will to Power.

All three narratives are sobering, though the 2001 German Das Experiment is the most chilling; 2010 direct to DVD The Experiment begins well but disintegrates into melodramatic crowd-pleasing cruelty; and, while good, the current incarnation raises again the question of America’s remaking, seldom improving on, foreign-language films however well subtitled or dubbed.

His girlfriend Cristina (Olivia Thirlby) briefly leaving for a position at Berkeley, and summer vacation about to depopulate the campus, Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) prepares his study on the mental and emotional, though not moral, ramifications of imprisonment. Three assistant researchers interview the male undergraduates from among whom they select two dozen to receive $15 a day for participating.

The subjects are fed ego nonsense hiding the fact that arbitrary coin flips separated them into “prisoners” and “guards.” Beginning August 14, the lower floor of emptied Jordan Hall is done up as Stanford County Prison. Prisoners are stripped, searched and furnished stocking caps and one-piece smocks with identifying number patches replacing names. Forbidden to administer true corporal punishment, jailers are given long nightsticks, casual khaki uniforms and aviator sunglasses.

At first the former accept the whole process as a joke and the latter are unsure about how to do their part. But the student-jailers soon forget the first word of that hyphenated designation and whip and punish their charges into shape through escalating sadistic methods that obey the letter but not the spirit of the terms set out. Bullied and deprived, within very few days some of the subservient group attempt to revolt but are cowed and browbeaten into submission or tears. As Primo Levi noted of Auschwitz, facing “the resolution to annihilate us first as men, . . . an abject flock, we remained standing, bent and grey, our heads dropped.”

Like the pigs at the end of 1984, the participants are absorbed into their rôles and literally become what they at first merely played at being. The two groups separate further and further, so much so that some prisoners collapse physically and emotionally, while one guard is revolted and draws apart from his companions.

Via surveillance cameras, Zimbardo and his team monitor the goings-on, his assistants unsettled and then so alarmed that one resigns but the professor refusing to curtail anything, even bringing aboard a former convict acquaintance to toughen up the subjects. When a professional colleague mildly questions the lack of a randomized control trial, the professor blows up and instead draws deeper into the emotional quicksand of his fascination with the psychosis of power and possibly sadomasochism.

The closed-circuit-observed situation downstairs and one student’s real or imagined medical crisis polarizes all of them. Returned to serve on a rigged mock parole board hearing, Cristina walks out and warns her boyfriend of the degradation of the others involved and of his own head and heart. (Given the portrayal, it is a surprise that the real professor served as consultant for the film and that the real Cristina married him.)

With implications for the hot-button police brutality controversy and for the always current issue of totalitarian bullyboy mentality, The Stanford Prison Experiment examines power, its allure and its abuse. The complexity of the problem is underlined in a doc-type coda in which, once more just students, one from one camp chides another for unnecessarily nasty behavior while the perpetrator defends himself as acting selflessly for the good of science. That this is a remake, and not so impactful as the original take, does not take away from its relevance.

(Released by IFC Films and rated "R" for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references.)

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