Based on controversial experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early ‘60s, The Tenth Level explores the troubling question of why otherwise good and rational people follow orders they know to be morally wrong, simply because the inclination to comply with directions from authority figures is so ingrained into human behavior. Specifically, Milgram created an elaborate scenario involving three participants. Two volunteers flipped coins, with one becoming the teacher and the other becoming the learner. The learner sat in a separate room, out of sight, with electrodes wired to his or her body. The teacher communicated by microphone, reciting a series of phrases and quizzing the learner about the phrases. Each time the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher hit a switch on a control board. The first switch triggered a tiny electric shock. Progressing through 25 levels, each switch zapped the learner with more electricity than the last. All the while, a scientist functioned as the experimenter, sternly urging the teacher to follow the experiment to its conclusion even as the teacher inevitably balked at inflicting pain on the learner.
The ethics of Milgram’s work were widely debated, even though his findings, which suggested that blind obedience is a common trait, sparked disturbed reactions from a populace still trying to understand, like Milgram, why so many Germans during World War II participated in genocide.
Shot on video and broadcast on Playhouse 90, The Tenth Level stars William Shatner as Stephen Turner, a stand-in for Milgram. In addition to navigating trite melodramas during scenes outside the laboratory, he struggles to keep his work secret from college officials, lest they shut down him down. Later, he defends himself once a school committee responds to accusations that Turner manipulated test subjects. Predictably, the best scenes involve re-creations and/or re-imaginings of experiment sessions. (The real Milgram consulted on the project.) Fine actors including Mike Kellin and Viveca Lindfors imbue their runs through Turner’s moral obstacle course with palpable anguish. Somewhat less effective is the picture’s second lead, Stephen Macht, who plays an important test subject. (Explaining his relevance would reveal too much of the plot.) Handsome and sincere, Macht gives the sort of one-dimensional performance one might encounter in a soap opera, an effect that’s exaggerated by the movie’s clunky video imagery. Unfortunately, Macht shoulders most of the film’s emotional weight, with Shatner largely relegated to speechifying until the final scene. Also working against the film’s efficacy is the way excellent supporting players including Roscoe Lee Browne and Lindsay Crouse are underused. In sum, The Tenth Level is intense and thought-provoking, but it’s also preachy and wooden.
FYI, the real-life science explored in this movie has appeared elsewhere in popular culture. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So features a song called “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37),” and the 2015 film Experimenter stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram.
The Tenth Level: FUNKY