Movie review: The Stanford Prison Experiment

Movie review:  The Stanford Prison Experiment


You only deserve as much abuse as you are willing to tolerate.  That has become one of my personal credos over the years.  Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez validated this for me once again in his docudrama The Stanford Prison Experiment.  I attended a matinee showing of this film at Circle Cinema in Whittier Square this week.  I must say that it was a somewhat difficult two hours to sit through.  The story focus is an experiment planned for two weeks that was ended after six days.  Before the film’s end I fully understood why.


The Stanford Prison Experiment is a dramatization of the actual experiment constructed and directed by Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Phillip Zimbardo.  I vividly recall reading about this in my first junior college psychology course in 1977.  As was alluded to above, it was designed as a two week experiment which was stopped after only six days.  As it turned out six days was plenty.  While it raised as many or more questions than it answered, the results had as profound an impact on the researchers as it did the subjects.  Director Alvarez was able to accurately depict the story on seemingly a minimal budget and a cast of largely lesser and unknown actors.  The only name in the cast I recognized was that of Billy Crudup who delivered a stellar portrayal of Dr. Zimbardo.  The experiment took place in the basement of Stanford University’s Jordan Hall from the 14th to the 20th of August, 1971.  Dr. Zimbardo ran an ad in the local Palo Alto paper requesting subjects for a research experiment offering $15 a day for two weeks.  Zimbardo and his graduate staff interviewed twenty-four subjects and had them choose if they would rather be a guard or a prisoner.  The last guard was chosen by a coin toss.  The rules were easy enough, all guards would be addressed as “Mr. Correctional Officer” and all prisoners would be addressed by their assigned prison numbers.  Guards were attired in khaki uniforms with nightsticks and reflective sunglasses to prevent eye contact.  Prisoners were attired in dress-like tunics with nylon stocking caps.  Three meals a day were provided and all food was to be consumed at mealtime only.  There was a strict rule of no physical abuse, the line of which was violated by both prisoners and guards.  There is a fair amount of profanity and sexual behavior referencing and innuendo.  I noted that twenty-three of the twenty-four subjects were Caucasian and the twenty-fourth was Asian.  All of them were college students and none of them had any real criminal background.

As I was watching the experiment subjects settle into their roles as guards and prisoners my mind drifted back to situations in my own life where I was defined by my rank, title or role.  Yes, although I have never been a prisoner I have been through Navy Boot Camp and subjected to leadership of other recruits appointed over me, some of whom pushed the limits of their authority.  As with my own experiences, I saw all the subjects immediately begin to explore the boundaries of their authority or lack thereof.  It was not terribly long before the stresses of incarceration and forced obedience became apparent with some of the prisoners.  The guards, who were given vague instructions by the prison warden (Zimbardo) to “keep the place under control,” seemed to have no problem using force early and often.  Coalition forming occurred early among some of the prisoners and when prisoner compliance became a problem for the guards, the “warden” told them to break the bonds of the coalition.  One thing that was a given is that none of the guards had any real intellectual advantage over the prisoners and vice versa.  One of the staff researchers was a former inmate at San Quentin by the name of Jesse Fletcher (portrayed by actor Nelsan Ellis) who acted as a member of a mock parole board.  The experiment soon came to an end after Mr. Fletcher quit on Dr. Zimbardo because even though an experiment prisoner was presenting his case for release before a mock parole hearing panel, Fletcher came down on the prisoner like he had experienced in real prison, effectively becoming something he despised……the law and order representative of the establishment that kept him behind bars for seventeen years.

Let it be duly noted that the original Stanford Prison Experiment was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research and was an area of interest of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps seeking to identify the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.  The experiment is a classic study in the psychology of imprisonment as my freshman level junior college general psychology text explained.

This is not a movie to sit back, relax and enjoy.  It is one which will provoke a thinking person to do some soul searching as to how you would deal with a situation as someone in authority and someone with no authority.  Even though the results of this experiment have been available for some 44 years how is it that we still find things like Attica, San Quentin, McAlester, OK, Abu Ghraib and just this month the Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, OK ?  The conclusions of the experiment underscore the premise that impressionability and obedience are quickly achieved with a legitimized ideology and with institutional support.  This brings to the forefront things worthy of discussion when it comes to reigning in the abuses of the for-profit prison industry.  I expect we will all hear more about this as the 2016 Presidential campaign heats up.

Again, I give Dr. Zimbardo and Director Alvarez credit for validating my credo, you only deserve as much abuse as you will tolerate.  After suffering through the full 122 minutes to the end of the credits, I give this film a 3-star rating out of 5, mostly for its educative value.

The Stanford Prison Experiment Official Trailer