Policeman standing infront of a lineup of criminals

The guard known as “John Wayne” (Michael Angarano) addresses his prisoners in The Stanford Prison Experiment (photo by Spencer Shwetz)

Have you seen the dash-cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest? Beyond the unknown role that racism may have played in the incident, it displays the dangers that arise when a cop abuses his authority.

  After basically tricking Bland into breaking the law—she clearly changed lanes without signaling because she saw a squad car racing up behind her and was anxious to get out of its way—the patrolman then goaded her until her temper boiled over. Bland should have gotten away with a ticket or even a warning, but instead she was threatened with a Taser, thrown to the ground and tossed into a jail cell from which she never emerged alive.

  Why do some cops treat their badge as a license to abuse? It almost becomes a chicken-or-egg question. Do professions such as policing attract people with a penchant for abuse, or do they take ordinary people and turn them into abusers?

  That’s a key question that arises in The Stanford Prison Experiment. Though it doesn’t deal specifically with policing, it does focus on the ways a position of authority can be a corrupting influence.

  Based on an actual study conducted at California’s Stanford University in 1971, the film shows what happens when 18 college students are hired to spend two weeks in a mock prison. Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) conducts the research and seems to consider it valuable, though the film glosses over just what he’s trying to learn. But if director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott show little interest in the “why,” they’re vitally interested in the “how.”

  After arbitrarily dividing the volunteers into “prisoners” and “guards,” Zimbardo and his staff set up a situation that encourages each group to take its role seriously.

  The prisoners are supplied with smock-like dresses and ankle chains, and their names are replaced with numbers. The goal, Zimbardo explains to fellow researchers, is to strip away their sense of self.

  As for the guards, they’re given broad power over the prisoners, the only limitation being that they must stop short of actual physical abuse. Another difference: The guards work in shifts, going home at night, while the prisoners remain locked up 24/7.

  Though at first both prisoners and guards treat the experiment as a joke, it’s not long before some start taking it to heart.

  Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano), a guard who becomes known as “John Wayne,” adapts a persona modeled after a sadistic prison guard in the 1967 flick Cool Hand Luke. He goes out of his way to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.

  Far from being repulsed by his behavior, the other guards seem eager to follow his example. Sadistic abuse becomes little more than a way to pass the time.

  In response, some of the prisoners begin showing signs of stress. Hit especially hard is 8612 (Ezra Miller), who begs to be released from the experiment. Zimbardo persuades him to stay only after promising (falsely) that he’ll tell the guards to go easy on him.

  Privately, the professor marvels that the only thing separating 8612 from Archer is a coin toss. If the toss had gone the other way and their roles had been reversed, he theorizes, 8612 would be the one trying to make Archer miserable.  

  You may or may not find that statement convincing, as Archer seems predisposed to abusive behavior. On the other hand, the other guards do quickly follow his lead.

  The film’s main strength is a committed cast, while its main weakness is a script that lacks subtlety. The experiment begins going awry so soon that we immediately know where things are headed. Eventually, though, it’s hard not to get caught up in the action, as melodramatic as it is. Some viewers may be reminded of 2012’s Compliance, another based-on-reality film that paints an equally disturbing portrait of human nature.

  Is everyone capable of being corrupted by a badge or other signs of authority, as The Stanford Prison Experiment seems to suggest? Is it possible to head off abuse through training or careful screening?

  Let’s hope it is. There are far too many dangerous misfits hiding behind a uniform, as Sandra Bland’s fate tragically demonstrates.

  Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

  The Stanford Prison Experiment, rated R, opens Friday (July 31) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For more information, visit