In August 1971, 24 male students of Stanford University acted out the roles of guards and inmates at a “prison” created for a psychological experiment. “The flip of a coin” determined who was to be a guard and who portrayed inmates in this study of human behavior under the duress of confinement or the duress of confining, degrading and abusing other people.
The results of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” are still taught in psychology courses today. You want to understand gulags, “re-education camps,” Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or San Quentin, it’s all there in Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s eye-opening exercise in power, control and psychosis.
A very good cast headed by Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano and Tye Sheridan stars in “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” a film as straight-forward and clinically chilling as its title.
Crudup is Zimbardo, leading a team of graduate assistants in grilling potential candidates for this $15 a day job of play acting.
“Have you ever attempted to kill yourself?” they want to know, among other details. Important screening questions, as it turns out.
Twenty-four young men are chosen. The “prisoners” are “arrested” at their homes — the first in a series of humiliations. They’re stripped and ordered to wear nightshirts that look like dresses. The others, given only the most rudimentary instructions (“No hitting.”), put on uniforms and sunglasses and become guards. Zimbardo and his grad students watch on video as the experiment begins and the guards figure things out as they go.
“Don’t we have to de-louse them first?”
Some of the “guards” are visibly uneasy at having this power over their peers. The prisoners smirk at the routine efforts to feminize and dehumanize them. At first.
Angarano has the showiest role, that of a prison guard who affects a drawl and has a little too much of “Cool Hand Luke” memorized. He slides into intimidation, degradation and punishment with psychotic ease.
Within hours, dynamics are established. Punishments are being doled out. Men find themselves doing push ups, or are stuck in “The Hole.” Some act out and resist. Some submit. Within a day, things turn abusive. Prisoners started conspiring to fight back, or began to crack up.
This story has been told in a couple of earlier films, but this one benefits from a “found footage” veracity and age-appropriate cast. Nelsan Ellis is sharp and guarded as a “consultant” brought in to verify the authenticity of the prison experience. Olivia Thirlby is the student-girlfriend of Zimbardo who acts as his conscience when the stress of this research — sleep deprivation goes on inside and outside of “the prison” — gets to him.
It’s not a new story, but it is one that holds up on the retelling. And in sticking closer to the actual facts of the event makes this “Stanford Prison Experiment” worth showing in the very classrooms where the actual experiment and its ground-breaking conclusions are taught.