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HomeFilm - Arts ReviewThe Stanford Prison Experiment - by IFC Films - A Movie Review

The Stanford Prison Experiment – by IFC Films – A Movie Review

The Stanford Prison Experiment – by IFC Films – A Movie Review

The following is based not merely upon my having viewed the film but as well my reading of the ‘Lucifer Effect’ by Dr. Philip Zimbardo along with other sources.

Official Film Synopsis

What happens when a college psych study goes shockingly wrong? In this tense, psychological thriller based on the notorious true story, Billy Crudup stars as Stanford University professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who, in 1971, cast 24 student volunteers as prisoners and guards in a simulated jail to examine the source of abusive behavior in the prison system. The results astonished the world, as participants went from middle-class undergrads to drunk-with-power sadists and submissive victims in just a few days. Winner of two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including Best Screenplay, and created with the close participation of Dr. Zimbardo himself, ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’ is a chilling, edge-of-your-seat thriller about the dark side of power and the effects of imprisonment. Featuring an extraordinary cast of rising young actors, including Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano, and Thomas Mann.

The story and my own thoughts

The film takes place in the year 1971 and the Stanford Prison Experiment is taking its first breaths of air as an ad is placed in a local Palo Alto newspaper. It runs as so:

“”Male college students needed for psychological study of prison life. $15 per day for 1-2 weeks beginning Aug. 14. For further information & applications come to Room 248, Jordan Hall, Stanford U.””

In Dr. Zimbardo’s own words, the experiment sought out the following through simulation of a prison environment: “We wanted to see just what were the behavioral and psychological consequences of becoming a prisoner or prison guard.”

The study was to be “funded by a government grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to study antisocial behavior.” The experiment which was to have lasted two weeks quickly went from bad to worse and was called off in less than half the expected time.

Stanford-PosterOverall, the film was a powerfully intense display of how sadism can be borne not merely from the slightest of influences but as well from a pack mentality. Sitting whilst watching this film I found myself mentally drawing parallels with National Geographic’s ‘Nazi Scrapbook from Hell’ which I’d coincidentally watched the previous evening; or more relevantly speaking , as stated by the doctor himself, the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison.  I mention all this not as a spoiler but as a way of preparing you for what’s in store since it may very well not be for everyone. Without question it’s the sort of film which will stir up conversation and debate and which might be as controversial as the study it reenacts.

The film is predominantly filled with up and coming young male actors, most of whom are recognizable from recent films. They all do an excellent job of helping to steer the story towards its breaking point. Billy Crudup does a fine job of portraying Philip Zimbardo who in turn plays the part of the superintendant overlooking the experiment itself. Michael Angarano and Ezra Miller both do fine jobs of playing a prison guard and prisoner respectively, roles which will most likely stand out the most in one’s mind.

To best address the subject at hand one might need to reference Dr. Zimbardo’s own writing in his book: ‘The Lucifer Effect’:

“”We see how a range of research participants—other college student subjects and average citizen volunteers alike—have come to conform, comply, obey, and be readily seduced into doing things they could not imagine doing when they were outside those situational force fields. A set of dynamic psychological processes is outlined that can induce good people to do evil, among them deindividuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self-justification, and rationalization. Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human. It makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and annihilation.””

Zimbardo, Philip (2007-03-27). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Kindle Locations 121-127). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Long after I’d watched the film and even for some time thereafter whilst reading ‘The Lucifer Effect’ I found myself grappling with the ‘large store’ of judgment and blame I’d wished to lap upon the Doctor. I found myself thinking about the issues laterally connected to this whole story and wondering if I was the only one even concerned about these matters. I sat wondering if the core of my troubles in accepting have to do with the day and age we live in: A world today so contrary to that of forty years ago. Brimming on the edge with information overkill wherein so many of us have events, stories and lessons told and retold through film, book and news offerings, all afforded us at the whisk of a finger.

Today there are a great many ‘givens’ and ‘understandings’ which as we go further along into our technological futures become more prevalent and obvious. We’re all familiar with not merely how good people can become bad or subservient as the history books demonstrate but as well with how good people might stand by and do nothing in the face of relative evil; not to mention how many evils are committed in the name of good. Examples which even Zimbardo references.

Historically speaking, often all it took was the selection of a scapegoat as the cause of one’s social-economic woes; and through the act(s) of individual &/or national self preservation little is done to combat that particular condemnation regardless. Sometimes it’s just a matter of brainwashing. The supposed culprit becomes the target and then the victim.

It’s a recipe culled from the history books which has served many a fiction writer well. At its most extreme there are the infamous dictators who’ve committed great crimes against humanity. Because of China’s Mao ZeDong millions died. Brother went against brother, child against parent, soldier against fellow countrymen. The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot did away with millions. Hitler, who turned his people against the Jews had grabbed power through a method eerily reenacted decades later by Saddam Hussein; a method requiring the subjugation of all present for fear of a reprisal resulting in death. There are many other examples from the Rwandan Genocide to the Nanking Massacre; from Stalin’s Great Purge and the Salem Witch Trials to the actions and in-actions of some American Soldiers during the Vietnam War; amongst other examples. All either completely or partially involving some sort of mass hysteria, groupthink, fear of death &/or brainwashing as well as fear of reprisal for acting up against the evils committed.

I mention all of these to demonstrate how in tune our modern day 21st Century understanding is of what’s cruelly possible when it comes to the human psyche. Heck, at its smallest degree a glance to social networks today will show you what folks are capable of saying online…regardless of the promise of anonymity or not. But of course it doesn’t end there considering how powerful social media has become through its demonic lure. I know, strong words, but consider the multitudes of social online cliques which exist and are reinforced by the many birds of a feather fostering a particular view however wrong or off the wall they may be; ‘and I’m not just referring to folks who might prefer the mac over the pc or those who think a canon is better than a nikon…but those who’ve fallen in line with the extreme religious right; those who believe everyone with a burkah is out to do bad; those believing this president or that president is the Satanic Spawn from Hell; those against this and those against that; and so on.

Blessed is the individual who has succumbed to its lure and lived to stand back objectively with a level head.

At its greatest degree, in the form of more local and current events, one need only look to the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Graib as well as the latest epidemic of police brutality here within our own country and the social responses that’ve taken place. I’d be remiss to not mention Dr. Zimbardo’s own testimony for the defense of Sgt. Ivan “Chip” Frederick during his court martial. Sgt. Frederick was a guard at Abu Ghraib prison. The doctor argued the effect that the situational influences at the prison had on guards such as the sergeant himself.

So I ask, would the Stanford Prison Experiment be possible today? Honestly it couldn’t pass ethical muster not to mention the legal ramifications of this lawsuit prone America should anything go wrong; and it is with the consideration of things going terribly wrong that I sit here uncomfortably contemplating this 1971 experiment. One in which the guards were nudged to instill a bit of hopelessness into the prisoners. One wherein they carried billy clubs (batons) and wore reflective glasses so’s to aid in their feelings of anonymity and the effect it would have on the prisoners themselves. I can’t help but wonder how much worse this experiment could’ve ended up.

Mind you, it was a scenario with the Doctor himself playing the role of superintendant while he and his associates, through a video camera and planted microphones, visually and aurally observed the goings on in the prison as they went from bad to worse. They had the chance to put a stop to the abuses at any time but they did not. If anything they contributed greatly to what happened there. Something the good doctor himself points out in ‘The Lucifer Effect’. He clearly makes references to not just how they handled the experiment wrongly but how they should have put a stop to it sooner than later.

So entrenched in his role had the doctor become that he’d lost himself within. So fearful of him were his associates that they held back from protesting. It’s ironic that quite possibly the results sought out through this experiment were most demonstrable through the doctor’s own inaction and that of his associates. Something which in the very beginning of his book he apologizes for by stating:

 “…and the extent of my passivity in allowing the abuses to continue for as long as I did—an evil of inaction.

… In addition, my appreciation goes to each of those college students who volunteered for an experience that, decades later, some of them still cannot forget. As I also say in the text, I apologize to them again for any suffering they endured during and following this research.”

Zimbardo, Philip (2007-03-27). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Kindle Locations 168-169). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

In closing I wanted to mention how for hours and days I’d struggled with my feelings about this story and this film. There was nothing farthest from my mind than the notion of forgiving the doctor for his mistakes. Immediately after watching this film I searched high and low for any semblance of proof that the man was a fraud worthy of any and all manner of insult I’d fling upon him.

There’s very little doubt in my mind how disgusted some folks will be after witnessing this film and how loathsome, as I felt, some may feel towards Doctor Philip Zimbardo. I’ve since come around to be a bit more accepting of the doctor and am still in the midst of reading and re-reading ‘The Lucifer Effect’ as well as viewing and listening to the many talks he’s held on the psychology of evil. I welcome you to have a look at any of the links I’ve provided below which are merely a portion of the many sources out there.

The Stanford Prison Experiment: Official Site

Ted Talks: The Psychology of Evil

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: The Lucifer Effect Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment conducted August 1971 at Stanford University

Interview with psychologist Philip Zimbardo


Sandbar Pictures
Abandon Features

In association with
Coup d’État Films
Vineyard Point Productions


Directed by

Written by

Based Upon the Book ‘The Lucifer Effect’ by

Produced by

Produced by


Executive Producers

Executive Producer

Co-Executive Producers


Associate Producers

Director of Photography

Production Designer

Edited by

Costume Designer

Music by

Casting by

First Assistant Director

Second Assistant Director


Dr. Philip Zimbardo BILLY CRUDUP
Christopher Archer MICHAEL ANGARANO
Anthony Carroll MOISES ARIAS
Gavin Lee/3401 KI HONG LEE
Prisoner 416 THOMAS MANN
Daniel Culp/8612 EZRA MILLER
Jerry Sherman/5486 LOGAN MILLER
Peter Mitchell/819 TYE SHERIDAN
Jeff Jansen/1037 JOHNNY SIMMONS
Dr. Christina Maslach OLIVIA THIRLBY
Jesse Fletcher NELSAN ELLIS
Paul Beattie/5704 JESSE CARERE
Hubbie Whitlow/7258 BRETT DAVERN
Marshall Lovett MILES HEIZER
Jim Randall/4325 JACK KILMER
Tom Thompson/2093 CHRIS SHEFFIELD
Father Macallister ALBERT MALAFRONTE
Mrs. Mitchell KATE BUTLER
Mr. Mitchell JAMES C. VICTOR
Professor Jim Cook FRED OCHS
Applicant #1 ALEC HOLDEN
Applicant #2 JACK FOLEY
Applicant #3 ROSS PHILIPS
Culp’s Brother AIDAN SUSSMAN

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