The Stanford Prison Experiment, which premiered this week at Sundance to mostly positive reviews, is not always an easy film to watch.
Much of the action takes place in barren 6-foot-wide hallway. The characters–seemingly normal and well-adjusted Stanford students recruited to participate in a landmark 1971 study about the psychology of imprisonment–take their role-playing as prisoner and guard to extremes, turning power-hungry, violent and occasionally sadistic. The “grown-ups,” led by researcher Philip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup), watch a live feed of the action from a nearby office and fail to stop the abuse–fueled by their own power trips and unchecked ambition.
None of the men or boys come off looking very good in the film, though director Kyle Patrick Alvarez does a masterful job humanizing them. And it’s impossible to watch without wondering how you’d react if parachuted into Zimbardo’s simulated prison. Would you stand up for yourself–or for the humanity of others? And can we really know until we’ve been there?
“One of the big questions this film deals with is, ‘Are we who we think we are?’” Crudup said when we sat down in Park City, Utah, this week to discuss the film. “This story talks about the ways we don’t fulfill our own moral capacity, and that what we think of as our true self is actually the product of many different situations, institutions, and places.”
Crudup (Almost Famous) is excellent as Dr. Zimbardo, a man who so badly wants to affect positive change in the world–and have an impact as a psychologist–that he’s willing to let his study subjects endure psychological torture for what he perceives as a greater good. It isn’t until the sixth day, when his girlfriend and fellow researcher (played by Juno’s Olivia Thirlby) objects to the experiment’s direction, that he finally accepts the damage he’s doing.
Read entire review here.
Related Situationist posts:
- Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison and Kingsfield’s Harvard Law
- The Situation of Heroism
- Zimbardo Interview at The Believer
- Speaking Truth to the Situation
- Dr. Z. on Dr. Phil
- Situationist Phil Zimbardo Takes Over the Dr. Phil Show
- The Situation of Hazing, Torture, Gender, and Tears
- Gross & Evil
- The Lucifer Effect Lecture at Harvard Law School
- The Devil You Know . . . , and
- From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II.