Fuse Film Review: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” — It’s a Crime

Even if you manage to overlook the objectionable ethics of the film, The Stanford Prison Experiment simply doesn’t work as a gripping drama.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema and Newburyport Screening Room.

It's all about education --  a scene from "The Stanford Prison Experiment."

It’s all about education — a scene from “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

By Paul Dervis

Suffice to say that there is plenty of evidence that Dr Philip Zimbardo was, and apparently still is, a megalomaniac. He is the Stanford University professor who, in 1971, conducted what must surely be condemned as a cruel and emotionally perverse experiment on a couple of dozen naive young men. That the institution condoned, or at least turned a blind eye, to this obviously misguided study is even more preposterous than the ego of the man behind the sadistic scenario.

One would think that Zimbardo might have developed a smidgeon of regret, or at least feel some shame, over the course of forty-five years. Yet he has been actively trying to get this movie completed for decades. When he was asked at the New York opening what it was like seeing himself and his experiment on the screen he was all smiles ” …it was very exciting. Because the movie is a brilliant re-creation of what really happened that weekend…” Blah, blah, blah. Dr. Zimbardo should be grateful for tenure.

Zimbardo was a consultant on the film, which was based on his book The Lucifer Effect. I have heard he has become quite wealthy. And I thought there was a law against receiving book and film royalties based on your crimes.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a docudrama. Dr Z pays fifteen dollars a day to a couple of dozen Stanford students to participate in the creation of a mock prison experience. Half the kids will playact the inmates, the other half will be the guards. The project is supposed to last two weeks in August: a makeshift jail is set up in the basement of the school’s Psychology building. It was scheduled when the university was not in session, the better to allow free reign for the questionable experiment. One has to wonder if an added benefit was that there will be no ‘watchful eye’ over the organizers.

Suffice it to say that Dr Z and others are doing plenty of watching on their own. Through a camera set up to record every violent moment in the pseudo-jailhouse, Zimbardo and his minions keep tabs on the atrocities that occur during virtually every waking moment. In fact, the study is a mere few hours old when one of the guards beats an inmate with a billy club.

Why didn’t it end right there? Well … the good professor is wracked with angst at seeing the violence, but, hey, it does seem to support his theories, so he appears a bit… titillated?

Billy Crudup, as the Professor Z, walks the (thin?) tightrope between serious scholar and evil dude. He plays the schizo doctor as a man trapped between his intellect and his passion. You can’t blame Crudup for the inane results.

But even if you manage to overlook the objectionable ethics of the piece, The Stanford Prison Experiment simply doesn’t work as a gripping drama. The triumph of the “bad” is hammered home without mercy, and our sympathy is far too easily directed. In other words, there is no build to this story; no arc to this film. Strong beats up weak — film at 11.

Yes, with each passing hour, the guards’ cruelty grows, but this escalation of brutality is so predictable that the rock’em sock’em antics become boring. In truth, the first time an inmate is struck is easily the most jarring episode in the film, far more shocking than the final humiliation at the end.

And, of course, the results of this experiment would be skewed at best. As opposed to real prisoners, these boys were being punished for no crimes of their own.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez doesn’t do much to move this Punch-and-Judy tale forward; writer Tim Talbott did little more than transcribe the book.

Zimbardo cut short the study, but no doubt what happened in 1971 continues to haunt the poor students who participated. I hope they are getting a piece of the action from this mediocre film.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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