A recent article on Middle East issues in Atlantic magazine by foreign policy expert David Ignatius starts with an observation made by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his journal in 1843: “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards.

Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter. (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)
Winona Ryder and Peter Sarsgaard in Experimenter. (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

But they forget the other proposition: that it must be lived forwards.” That same quote, which occurs more than once, is at the start of Experimenter (Rialto), the story of Jewish social psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for his behavioural experiments at Yale University.
Those measured the degree to which persons in the experiments would inflict punishment, through electric shocks, when under orders from another person in authority.
Those tests were prompted by the controversy generated by another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in her descriptions of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, and the role of the Jewish leadership in Nazi Germany. Eichmann’s defence was that he, and thousands of others, were just carrying out orders when they perpetrated the Holocaust.
Arendt’s famous quote about the “banality of evil” is also referenced in Experimenter as Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) attempts to understand issues surrounding authority, conformity and conscience; how far would people go before they rebelled against authority when ordered to inflict punishment? A similar theme, based on actual cases, was examined with far more sensationalist treatment in last year’s Compliance, in which a fastfood manager humiliates a worker on orders given over the phone by someone posing as a policeman.
As the son of European Jewish parents, Milgram was haunted by the death camps of World War II and the complicity of those involved. He was also influenced by the My Lai massacre committed by American soldiers in Vietnam in 1968.
When details of the experiments leaked out, Milgram became as notorious as Arendt. (Her experience was superbly depicted in last year’s eponymous dramatisation by German writer-director Margarethe von Trotta.) But notoriety only pushed Milgram into examining further extremes of behaviour, that led to concepts such as Six Degrees of Separation (connectedness between people), the Lost Letter Experiment (impact of TV on anti-social behaviour) and Cyranoids (using “shadow voices” for communication and resembling how Joaquin Phoenix wrote others’ love letters for a living while having a computer operating system for a girlfriend in Her).
Milgram’s experiments were embellished in the media, notably a 1975 telemovie (starring William Shatner and appearing in Experimeter) and the futuristic thriller V For Vendetta (2005). He died in 1984 aged 51. Writer-director Michael Almereyda creates come clunky moments, including the use of bad wigs, false Lincolnian beards and a literal elephant in the room. Offsetting this is the casting of Winona Ryder as Milgram’s supportive wife.
After a promising start in films such as Heathers (1988) and Reality Bites (1994), her acting career largely stalled over a shoplifting offence in 2001. In 2010, she was acclaimed for her role as Lois Wilson, wife of a cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in When Love is Not Enough. It’s good to see her back in something deserving of her talent. Rating: Mature audiences (offensive language); 97 minutes.