MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo by IFC Films
In Theaters and Video on Demand (various cable and satellite systems)
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano.
In 1971 Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford University (played in this fact-based film by Billy Crudup), decided to spend his summer break conducting a 2 week experiment to see how the roles we are given in life might influence our behavior. He placed a small advertisement in the school newspaper offering $25 a day (equivalent to $100 today) to willing male student volunteers. Entry interviews were conducted and 24 students were chosen to play the roles of guards and inmates in a simulated prison. The prisoners would stay at the school for the two weeks (including daily meals) and the guards would work in shifts. Although the students were asked which part they wished to play (most wanted to be prisoners, since it would be “less work”; the roles were doled out fairly randomly.) The rules of the experiment specified that there would be no physical contact allowed between guards and prisoners. Zimbardo and his team of researchers would observe all of the activity.
As the experiment begins, we see the students goofing with the parts that they are given to play. But, before the first day is over, the guards are beginning to push their authority and the prisoners are feeling shamed and depersonalized, given loose fitting gowns to wear (that the guards call “dresses”) and numbers instead of names. One guard (Michael Angarano) is given the nickname “John Wayne” and becomes the de facto leader, modeling his behavior on the abusive chain gang boss from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke.
Things quickly devolve and this model prison becomes a hellish environment for guards and prisoners alike. As the student guards become more profane and insensitive and the student prisoners more submissive and helpless, Dr. Zimbardo and his researchers feel that they are on the cusp of something significant and allow the experiment to continue, becoming complicit in the shaming and demoralization of their volunteers. Eventually the emotional turmoil reaches a tipping point of cruelty and the experiment is stopped after just six days.
Years later Dr. Zimbardo would be join a defense team of lawyers representing a prison guard at Abu Ghraib and write the book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a hard film to watch, made even more unbearable by knowing that most of the dialog is used verbatim from the experiment’s transcripts. This movie wants to disturb the viewer and it succeeds. The ensemble cast is loaded with exceptional young actors and filmed with energy and a real sense of the limited and claustrophobic space used in these sessions.
As persons of faith, we believe that it is God’s desire to claim us, forgive us, save us and use us for good in the world. The Stanford Prison Experiment reminds us that there are other powers at work in the world to indoctrinate and condition us to be less than human. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV) May this film remind us to keep the faith and fight the good fight.
Two halos: A disturbing and thought-provoking account of humanity’s capacity for evil.
Five pitchforks: Endless swearing and abusive behavior; crude sexual and scatological language.
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Call me an old prude but I fail to see the value of even going to see these type of movies, let alone offering us a review on them. Certainly there must be better movies to see and offer reviews about. Why not attend and offer reviews on the best of the best instead of trashy nonsense. One opinion respectfully submitted.
Pastor Gary Fitzgerald
Southern Hills District
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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