The Stanford Prison Experiment Film Review

The Stanford Prison Experiment Film Review
“The Stanford Prison Experiment”, with its almost exclusively male cast, is not only a study in the psychology of power, but of machismo as well. Upon “incarceration”, the student prisoners are stripped of their clothing, forced to wear burlap dresses, and referred to as ladies by the student guards. The guards, meanwhile, strut around in dark sunglasses and are led by a sadistic student whom the researchers nickname John Wayne.

The film covers the week in 1971 when Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s experiment takes place. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) randomly divides the students into two groups, prisoners and guards. He tells the guards they have been chosen for their exemplary qualities, although this is untrue. He then sets them loose in his “prison”, actually a deserted set of offices at Stanford University. Zimbardo observes the students via camera and tape recorder, but does not prevent the guards from inflicting violence. When the guards realize that they can act with impunity, the abuse of prisoners escalates.

Zimbardo, himself, is not above exercising/abusing the prerogatives of power. He refuses to answer the questions of another professor regarding his study. He deflects the concerns of a parent by flippantly asking, “Your son is tough, right?” One of Zimbardo’s troubled researchers says that they have all become part of the experiment.

Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by Tim Talbot, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is provocative and harrowing. Although most of the action takes place in a hallway that serves as the prison yard, the dynamic editing and camera work prevent the film from seeming static or confined. Andrew Hewitt’s original score adds tension. It also gives the story a timeless quality, which the director doubtless intended. Alvarez and Talbot allow the viewer to make connections between what is dramatized on the screen and current events concerning abuses of power.

Dr. Zimbardo terminated his experiment after six days, not the two weeks he had originally intended. There is a disclaimer at the end of the film, stating that none of the original participants were permanently harmed or suffered any long-term effects. It is not exactly reassuring, however, given the uncomfortable truths “The Stanford Prison Experiment” reveals about human nature.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” was originally released in 2015. It is available on DVD and Amazon Video. The film is rated R for language, including profanity and sexual references. I watched the film at my own expense. Review posted on 1/30/2015.

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