Purely for movie watching purposes, The Stanford Prison Experiment is pretty good, but the question of authenticity looms over this film. How accurately does a movie represent an experiment held in 1971 to test the effects of college guys placed into ‘prisoner’ and ‘guard’ positions? In which the guards use a smoke machine on one prisoner’s cell at one point? Or that the prisoners are forced to defecate in buckets, reenact sexual acts upon each other, and go without showering for weeks?
In terms of the plot, the relationship between Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his girlfriend Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby) seemed an unnecessary component to bring into the film, since his co-workers were able to express their concerns just as well, if not better, than Maslach. It was an unremarkable role and did nothing to advance the plot or affect the atmosphere.
There were, however, some stellar moments that really shine amongst the abuse of power. One prisoner admits to not having a home, and thus a simulated prison and forced-obedience for $15 a day is a better alternative than sleeping in his car. We later see that even perfect obedience isn’t enough to let you slide by in an environment where some have all the power and others have none.
The ending was unsatisfying. The actors spoke in retrospect about the experiment, when having real prisoners and guards reflecting on their behavior and feelings throughout and after the experiment would’ve been a more deserved finale. In hindsight, the scenes were also too short. The footage, acted or authentic, of prisoners and guards talking in a clearer state of mind is refreshing to see, and important to watch as they reflect more deeply on the situation and the effects of the events, which, for them, were very much real.
I can’t fully recommend this movie but there’s a lot within the realm of psychology that is just outside the periphery, and this film brings at least one important finding into focus.