Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Stanford Prison Experiment [2015]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB ()  ChicagoTribune (3 Stars) (1 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B+)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB () review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review  

The Stanford Prison Experiment [2015] (directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, screenplay by Tim Talbott) dramatizes the story of the infamous 1971 experiment conducted by social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo (played in the film by Billy Crudup).  In the experiment, he and his team of graduate students randomly divided a group of Stanford University students (paid $15/day for their participation) into prisoners and guards to populate a make-shift prison they created for the 2 week study in a random corridor in lecture hall on campus that summer.

While the story of this quite infamous (if also _revelatory_) experiment has been told and retold in various forms in decades since -- pretty much every college student in the United States taking an "Intro to Psych" class will come across a paragraph or two about it, the dramatization here will once again make it and its results -- that pretty much anybody given authority with poorly defined / poorly enforced bounds could be turned into an animal by it -- unforgettable.

And that's probably a good thing given the crisis of confidence that the country has undergone during the past several years with regards to members of law enforcement finding themselves (or being caught...) resorting to deadly force far faster than most of us in larger society are comfortable with.  I think that most of us appreciate the work that the police do (and the _dangers_ that they face) to keep law and order and the public safe, but most of us also don't necessarily understand why a routine stop should end-up with the person being stopped / arrested severely roughed-up or dead.  When this starts happening with some frequency, it does require a revisit of procedures (as in fact has been happening) in these past few years, because nobody particularly likes taking human life.

And let's not forget the 2004-2006 post-Iraq War scandal at Abu Ghraib that played out, FOR REAL, over 18 months in almost the exactly same way as this 6 day 1971 experiment played out before a first mesmerized but increasingly aghast Dr. Zimbrano himself had enough:  At Abu Ghraib, a not particularly well motivated / not particularly well well watched of U.S. military reservists (not exactly "the tip of the spear ...") largely out of boredom, but also because they themselves weren't particularly well-watched or given particularly clear rules of engagement ... ended up routinely humiliating and even psychologically torturing _hundreds_ of Iraqi prisoners in their charge, causing  _enormous_ subsequent damage to the United States' reputation abroad after the story inevitably leaked out.

So, as a Community member of mine said at the breakfast table as I was talking about this movie, this is a story with immediate resonance today. 

And I would say that as I watched the film, I wondered if part of the story was really: "This is NOT the way to run a prison (and with the exception of perhaps 'setting up a baseline' this is almost certainly NOT the way to setup an experiment about running a prison)." 

 The guards were given instructions: (1) to "keep order," (2) (for some reason) to DEHUMANIZE the prisoners (by giving the prisoners, male, prison uniforms that were essentially dresses barely covering their genitalia, and calling them ONLY BY NUMBER), and (3) were given the freedom to use any means to do so, SO LONG AS THEY DID NOT HIT THE PRISONER.

So there was, nominally, a "red line" (at resorting to hitting the prisoners).  Yet, the guards were given
night-sticks to at least threaten the prisoners with, and as the trailer to the film already reveals (though perhaps not how quickly things deteriorated to that point) the guards soon found themselves using said night-sticks to keep order, and worse. 

The story, following the trajectory of the actual experiment, unfolds (deteriorates) from there.  Prisoners revolt, prisoners try to escape, prisoners (may) actually get sick (through panic attacks).  And six days into the experiment, the professor himself pulled the plug on the developing Lord of the Flies [wikip] [GR] [Amzn] situation.

Now one could ask actually, how much "acting" was required to tell this story?  Yet, a survey of the actors in the film [IMDb] playing both prisoners and guards reveals that they were all legitimate actors and a fair (even surprising) number of them played in the recent teen-oriented drama The Perks of Being a Wall Flower [2012].  And they certainly played their roles both believably and quite well.

In any case, the story gives viewers much to think about, especially perhaps the importance of setting-up clear rules / procedures with regards to the exercise of authority as well as the need for vigilant oversight NOT necessarily to punish guards / police officials but to quickly / effectively respond to problems with procedures.  A prison that becomes a war-zone is clearly a failed prison.  A traffic stop that ends with the death of the person who was stopped is always, at least at some level, a failure. 

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