Wormwood is full of secrets, some revealed, some tantalizingly unknowable, most of them terrifying to deal with at a time when many of us are reminded, daily, of how much of importance our government is hiding from us.
By Peg Aloi
For those who admire Errol Morris’ inventive approach to documentary, his newest work proves to be yet another odyssey of innovation. In 1997, Morris has invented the Interrotron, a set-up in which interview subjects can look directly into the camera while speaking to the filmmaker (first seen in Fast, Cheap and Out Of Control). The cinematic result is an intense, intimate effect that Morris calls “the first person.” In Wormwood, a six-part series that premiered on Netflix this week, Morris himself re-enters the frame to do interviews with his main subject, Eric Olson, son of Frank Olson, a biochemist working on biological warfare research for the U. S. government. The latter’s mysterious death in 1953 is the subject of this documentary-narrative hybrid. Morris sits across from Olson in a large room reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting; during the sessions, Olson talks about his childhood memories and the obsession of his adult life: solving his father’s murder.
But before we get to the documentary foundation of this stunning series, the narrative begins in a fictional mode: a man (Peter Sarsgaard) crashes through a hotel window and falls, in stunning slow motion, with glass shards twirling, to his death on the sidewalk. The fall is ruled an accident, and Frank’s wife (Molly Parker, who also starred opposite Sarsgaard in the undersung 2001 film The Center of the World) seems to accept this conclusion with quiet resignation. The heartbreaking implication: Frank Olson committed suicide. But, in 1975, newspaper articles report that Olson’s death was very likely the result of his being secretly dosed with LSD, a guinea pig in a secret CIA experiment. Of course, during the ’70s these kind of bizarre deaths were not uncommon in the news: LSD was a recreational drug for mainstream society and occasionally someone having a “bad trip” (or an exceedingly good one) would be convinced they could fly and leap off a tall building.
But the real story behind Olson’s death is more complex and insidious. And it is that tangled narrative that Morris encourages Eric Olson to tell, assisted by the lawyers, journalists, and others who followed the case for years. Eric received the news about the LSD connection with his father’s death while he was working towards a PhD in psychology at Harvard University: a path he more or less abandoned when his search for justice and truth took over his life. Having lived with the fact of his father’s suicide and its impact on his family for so long, Eric is seized by an obsession to uncover the facts. Interestingly, Eric’s dissertation explored the use of collage in therapy; he continues to create collages, using news clippings and images to piece together his father’s story. Morris also utilizes collage in the visual aesthetic of this series; interwoven with the dreamy narrative scenes, they make for artful and oddly moving content.
Eric’s matter of fact recollections and insights are subtly compelling. Despite the shocking nature of some of his discoveries, the character rarely exhibits extremes of emotion; he radiates a sort of even-keeled persona. He metes out small doses of intellectual catharsis as he sits in the cavernous room talking with Morris, whose gentle but consistent prodding sets the dramatic pace. But the fictionalized footage is equally involving and beautifully photographed. Morris turns out to be an excellent shaper of narrative material (no surprise for a filmmaker whose work is so focused on intense personalities and obsessions). Here he has a fine script. co-written by Kieran Fitzgerald, Steven Hathaway, and Molly Rokosz (all three of whom have impressive credentials, including Snowden, Session 9, and The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography), to work with. The cast, including creepy turns from Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban, are all letter perfect.
Frank Olson was disturbed by his government work; he was considered by higher-ups to be a potential whistleblower, and thereby someone to be silenced. Wormwood (the title is a reference to the Book of Revelation, and its imagery creates a fittingly apocalyptic backdrop to this mystery) is full of secrets, some revealed, some tantalizingly unknowable, most of them terrifying to contemplate at a time when many of us are reminded, daily, of how much of importance our government is hiding from us.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” has recently been moved to a new domain: themediawitch.com.