Movie Review: The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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Release: 26 January 2015
Based on a real event, The Stanford Prison Experiment is an intriguing and horrifying idea. It would be easy to ignore the film, and the consequences if this was purely fiction. As fiction it would be silly or forgettable, and definitely not horrifying. The entire film’s value hinges on the fact that all of this really happened. I don’t really know if all of this happened, but based on reading interviews related to the subject and the Wikipedia on the project, the film sounds quite accurate. One worry is that Professor Zimbardo (who is the brains behind the experiment) has control over all the names and details of the real project. If information is wanted about the study, one must go through him. Apart from one or two people involved in the study, he has complete control over the study’s details. Despite this flaw, the study is extremely interesting and the film is a very accessible way to learn about it. It is a shocking examination into the potential evil in everyone. The film presents the details of the experiment in a shocking manner that never really dives too deeply into the controversy. It takes the facts of what occurred, presents them and leaves most of the thinking to observer.

The study was done at Stanford University in 1971. Professor Zimbardo created a fake prison in the basement of one of the school buildings and recruited students to take on the role of either prisoner or guard. The simulation even included the selected prisoners being picked up by police car and “arrested” for various crimes. The prisoners were humiliated and depersonalized and the guards quickly slipped into their role as authoritarians. The study was designed to show how quickly even good decent people can become monsters with just a bit of power. Since the study has been completed it has received much attention, particularly as it was used to defend the guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. It utilized procedures that many believe to be unethical to try and recreate a real prison experience and the results were intriguing and extremely worrying. While I find much of what they did to be awful, I can’t deny there is something fascinating and informative about their results.

The acting in the film is great. All the young actors, portraying test subjects, were very believable. Billy Crudup, who plays Zimbardo, presents the researchers slip into the role of prison warden. He comes into the study as an individual expected to be impartial, but when things quickly degrade he steps into the role without hesitation. This development, making him more interested in the up-keeping of the “prison” makes me question the validity of the achieved results. One of the students who acted as a guard did an AMA on Reddit and he called into question the study’s validity. The guard commented that the study did seem to be Zimbardo coming in with a planned result and making a study that would do nothing more than prove his expectations. After watching the film I feel this critique seems quite valid. I don’t have enough knowledge about the intricacies of a psychological study to know fully, others are probably far more equipped to adequately judge the experiment.

Despite my own lack of knowledge on the field, I felt that the project faced a conundrum. For the results to be accurate the prisoners needed to behave like they would in a real prison, and to do this they needed to believe that it was real. The problem was that in order to convince the prisoners that all this was real they were forced to mess with their heads a lot, something that makes the whole experiment invalid. The prisoners began to believe they really were in prison, but more importantly they began to question their own sanity. They never seem completely sure that it was an experiment and they were always questioning if it was a real prison. The test subjects lacked authenticity, a real prisoner would know they are really in prison. I feel that they failed to create an accurate mindset, but maybe did the best they could without studying real prisoners.

Overall the film wasn’t amazing. It was interesting and thought provoking, but wasn’t completely a homerun. I would highly recommend at as a resource to learn about the subject. There is no doubt that it will bring up many questions and a lot of curiosity for both this experiment and many similar experiments. I never really cared too much for any one character and often found the guards and psychologists to be reprehensible. I think it works better as an informative resource like a documentary rather than a narrative. I think it leaves me with a lot of questions and doesn’t try too hard to point me in any one direction. I appreciate what it sets out to do and how much it accomplishes. I’d have to give it 3 stars out of 5.

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