Every year Sundance awards the Alfred P. Sloan Prize to a feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. They also tend to be one of my favorite films of that year (Primer 2004, Another Earth 2011, Computer Chess 2013, I Origins 2014). This year will either be an anomaly or a new trend as for the first time the prize has been given to a film that features a socials science, in this case, psychology. The prize (and the $20,000 in cash that goes with it) was awarded to Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, based on the infamous study that divided college students into prisoners and guards in 1971, an experiment featured prominently in every psychology textbook written since. Despite the lack of hard science, and honestly, the experiment’s lack of sound scientific method, the film succeeds in chronicling an important moment for our understanding of human nature. It also succeeds in being an intense drama that hopefully will not be forgotten by the time next year’s Oscars roll around.
Stanford is out for the summer. A team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) moves into the basement of the department. After putting out a call, 18 men are selected to participate based on their answers to personality questions. When asked if they would rather be a guard or a prisoner, every last man says prisoner (cause no one likes a guard). However, roles are selected by a coin flip. ‘Prisoners’ are collected at their homes by actual cops, blindfolded, stripped and subjected to intense psychological torture by the ‘guards’ who seem all too ready to play their part. The experiment disintegrates into all sorts of abuse, humiliation, and sexual degradation. As the prisoners vie for favor and parole, the researchers realize they too have become unwilling participants in the experiment itself by their involvement.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is the only narrative I saw at Sundance that I think is an important film. By documenting the groundbreaking study with such accuracy (a tweet from one of the producers to me read “We actually had to remove events that really happened that no one would have believed”) the filmmakers have opened this historical fact to generations of students and film fans. Fortunately, it also happens to be a great film.
Despite having a huge ensemble, every role is distinct and given full realization by a terrific group of actors (most of whom I didn’t recognize). The screenplay captures the increasing horror of the situation, where just a simple title card ‘Day Two’ can elicit uncomfortable laughter out of necessity. The pacing places us in the prison, where it is hard to tell how long we’ve been inside, but there is never a dull moment. And though the production design is somewhat basic, the film always feels right and the recreations are uncanny. I especially enjoyed the post-experiment interviews where the characters talked about their experiences and how they may have even surprised themselves. And by my research, it seems to be, in all the important elements, historically accurate. It is a good sign when after a two-hour movie you wish there was another hour of footage you could watch, and that’s the experience I had.
The Alfred P. Sloan jury presented the award to THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT for its “unflinching portrayal of an ambitious though flawed social science experiment in the psychology of imprisonment, and for its wrenching depiction of the human capacity for evil.” Serving on the jury were PBS Nova producer Paula Apsell, Astrophysicist and Guggenheim Fellow Janna Levin, actress/writer (and former Sloan winner) Brit Marling, writer Jonathan Nolan, and engineer Adam Steltzner from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After recognizing Alvarez’s film, Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation said, “With The Imitation Game, Theory of Everything and Interstellar wowing audiences and winning accolades this year – and with Gravity, Her and Dallas Buyers Club similarly successful last year – it is clear that science and technology themes and characters are entering the cinematic mainstream.”
Sundance carries on for two more days but I only have one film left to see before I catch a plane back to Texas. However, you can look forward to several more features and interviews from Sundance and Slamdance in the coming weeks as I try to hit all my favorites.