The Stanford Prison Experiment was the brainchild of Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor who in the summer of 1971 turned the basement of the University’s otherwise empty Jordan Hall into a makeshift jailhouse, randomly assigning 24 male student volunteers to the roles of prisoner and guard. The experiment rapidly spiraled out of control, shuttering the pseudo-prison after six days rather than the intended two weeks, leaving a long-lasting imprint, a case functioning as a cornerstone of many psychological texts. What the conflict actually “proved” has been debated back and forth for forty-plus years, and its after-the-fact consequences are entirely irrelevant to the 2015 film just released chronicling the event. Aside from a few re-enactments of post-experiment interviews unnecessarily tacked on at the end, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” isn’t interested in explicitly debating the outcome. Rather director Kyle Patrick Alvarez simply seeks to dramatize. Yet even in a dramatization, the filmmaker’s choices, what to include, what to leave out, how to present it, render a specific viewpoint.
Zimbardo sought to determine if prison's violent culture resulted from the individual personalities of its correctional officers and inmates or from the prison environment itself. Yet in “The Stanford Prison Experiment” Alvarez almost exclusively refrains from outfitting any of the prisoners or guards a genuine personality. This pointed lack of individualism occurs to such an extent that the only one who makes a true impression, a guard, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), does so because he is assuming the personality of someone else - that is, the prison warden from “Cool Hand Luke.” It's more disorienting when he briefly speaks in his own voice.
Because Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup, is outside the faux-jail, observing from on monitors from his office, it would seem his character might be the one truest to who he really is. Yet in installing himself as the warden of his prison experiment, he conforms to the role so quickly and completely, that even he is hard to get a read on beyond the confines of Jordan Hall. It's not so much that he's a Machiavellian manipulator as a man in over his head without the necessary perspective to realize he's in over his head.
Aside from a few scenes near the beginning, and one critical scene late, the entire two hours of “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes place within the confines of these white walls. The intense intimacy makes for a harrowing viewing experience, one that in combination with the deliberate redundancy of the narrative grinds you down just as it grinds the “prisoners” down. But because Alvarez makes no moves to gussy up this plain space, to imaginatively render it as seeming like an actual prison, the violence, physical and emotional, while wholly palpable, comes across in this synthetic setting to someone looking from the outside in as brutal play-acting. You perform the role you're assigned.
Late in the film, Zimbardo’s fiancé Christina (Olivia Thereby) turns up, sitting in on a “parole hearing”, and disgusted by the abuse she witnesses by the guards, she calls out her future husband on his failure to truly grapple with his motives. Initially Christina comes across like a mere screenplay convenience, less a character than the villain’s conscious. And even if this moment did take place in real life, the moment goes beyond that basis in fact; it’s the lone moment a person enters this “jail” from the outside. She sees it for what it is.
Really, Stanford County Jail, with its purposely plain setting, could be anywhere, a stand-in for anything. After all, the conference rooms are cells, the narrow hallway is the “yard” and the hole is a closet, an explicit parallel to the modern day office environment, and there are others to be drawn. But once we're inside a particular system, it becomes difficult to see that system for exactly what it is. We might complain, but we correspond to our set role. And until we're pulled up, we have no idea how long we've been breathing underwater.