What is truth? Is there such a thing when dealing with agencies that operate with secrecy such as the CIA? Those are just a few of the questions swirling around Errol Morris’ mind-blowing six-part documentary series for Netflix, Wormwood. As he’s done before in documentary films such as The Thin Blue Line, Morris employs intricate reenactments to examine the events of the wild true story of the mysterious death of a government scientist in the ‘50s all while pushing the boundaries what is possible in documentary filmmaking. Was he murdered? Was drugged with LSD in experiments conducted by the CIA? Where in this thick fog of lies and misdirection can the truth be found? Can the truth even be found at all? All these questions and more will be going through your mind as Errol Morris adds and subtracts layers to this mystery in a powerful, intellectually haunting examination of one case that almost defies rational explanation.
In the early morning hours of November 28, 1953, Frank Olson (played in the reenactments by Peter Sarsgaard) plunged to his death out of the window of a New York City hotel. The official story was that Frank, a scientist working with the CIA, either fell or jumped to his death – the varying options presenting an unusual scenario of either suicide or a remarkably unfortunate accident. In 1975, though, it was reported that Frank Olson was secretly dosed with LSD in covert experiments within the CIA. The Olson family was granted a $750,000 payout and received personal apologies from President Gerald Ford and CIA chief William Colby, but a clause in that settlement prevent the family from suing the government for wrongful death. Amazingly, this is only the start of a story that goes deep into the heart of Central Intelligence Agency in the ‘50s and their unscrupulous dealings conducted in immense secrecy which shielded them from any kind of public accountability.
The death of his father sent Eric Olson to dive head first into all these varying cover stories that failed to hold up under scrutiny. What Morris finds in his interviews with Eric Olson is a fluid kind of truth, one where the story shifts based upon the needs of the CIA to obscure the truth, whatever that may be. This is turn becomes not just a story of what happened to Frank Olson in the months and days before his death, but how his death changed Eric’s life forever, setting him on a path to pursue the truth at all personal costs. Wormwood is just as much about grief and obsession as it is with LSD and government secrets. As these dual aspects of Wormwood unfold it becomes strikingly clear that are no winners in this story.
What’s incredibly fascinating in Wormwood is how Errol Morris uses these highly cinematic reenactments to takes us deeper into the shifting stories and how these alternate truths would play out. Whether through interviews with those present that fateful night in New York or through the official documents that claim a wild story or with interviews with Eric Olson, Morris presents us with every possible angle. How much of these recreations consist of irrefutable truth is up to the viewer to decide, and each startling revelation makes you doubt what came before it.
In these recreations, Errol Morris and Eric Olson introduce us to an array of real life characters who were all present at various aspects of the events that surrounded the death of Frank Olson. There’s Frank’s boss Col. Vincent Ruwet (Scott Shepard), who remained a family friend even after Frank’s suspicious death. Other shady government figures included Robert Lashbrook (Christian Carmargo), Dr. Sidney Gottlieb (Tim Blake Nelson), and Dr. Harold Abramson (Bob Balaban), an allergist who was giving medical treatment to Olson for mental health related issues. Whether it’s their official testimony as to the events that surrounded the death of Frank Olson or later conversations they had with Eric Olson about that night, they prove time and time again to be an unreliable narrator in Errol Morris’ documentary epic that goes beyond just this one horrific event and into the possibility that Americans used biological weapons, a war crime, in the Korean War and whether or not Frank Olson’s knowledge of such events caused him to be murdered by his own colleagues within the CIA. Everything about this rogues gallery of spies is unsettling, and just when you think things can’t get more unnerving Morris finds a new wrinkle that will send chills down your spine.
After viewing all six episodes and all four hours of Wormwood, I’m not entirely sure of what the truth really is. Was Frank Olson dosed with LSD? Was he murdered? Did the United States use biological weapons in Korea? Reporter Seymour Hersh claims to know the answers of what happened but refuses to say on camera, claiming that divulging the truth would compromise his sources. Whether or not that’s another line of falsehoods is open to interpretation. However, Morris does find instances where the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist got stories about the CIA and the Olson case specifically wrong, further muddying the waters of what is the truth. Therein lies what’s brilliant and frustrating about Wormwood – the god’s honest truth isn’t verifiable here. Concrete answers are buried deep underground. The reason it’s frustrating has nothing to do with impeccable craft that Errol Morris displays in assembling the various versions of the story. You can even see Morris growing frustrated when Seymour Hersch claims to know the absolute truth but evades answering it.
It has been said that journalism is the quest for “best obtainable version of the truth.” What Errol Morris has done with Wormwood is create a documentary that weaves between fact and fiction, attempting to piece together the best obtainable version of the truth knowing full well there may be nothing but lies and deception. So Morris uses those lies to craft unreliable narratives in reenactments that prove just how flimsy the official story is while simultaneously crafting a tragic tale of grief and obsession, a bright young mind lost in a fog of lies. I’ve often maintained that Errol Morris (sorry, Frederick Wiseman) is the greatest living documentarian because of how he’s been able to redefine the documentary genre while never losing sight of the truth. He’s done that once again. Only, this time, nobody is absolutely sure what that truth is.