Wormwood: Obsession, Lies, and a CIA Coverup

Errol Morris’s latest documentary is a rambling investigation into the death of a government scientist.

Peter Sarsgaard stars as Frank Olson, an army biologist who died in 1953, and the subject of Errol Morris's Netflix documentary 'Wormwood'

Errol Morris’s Wormwood, which arrived on Netflix and in some movie theaters Friday, is a mind-boggling story involving LSD-spiked Cointreau, allegations of biological warfare against the U.S. government, Project MKUltra, mind control orchestrated by an allergist and a magician, and a son’s obsessive quest to find out why his father plummeted to his death from a 13th-floor Manhattan hotel room. So why is it frequently so stultifying and so claustrophobic? How can such a riveting real-life tale of CIA malfeasance be so turgid in execution, to the point where the camera spends 90-plus seconds in one episode simply watching an actor in military uniform mix a drink?

Wormwood has been widely heralded as groundbreaking work from the visionary documentarian behind The Thin Blue Line and the Interrotron interview method. Released as a six-part series on Netflix, and as a 240-minute long film in theaters, it combines interviews and archival footage with staged dramatic reenactment of events before and after the 1953 death of Frank Olson—a military scientist whose supposed “suicide” was complicated when the Rockefeller Report of 1975 revealed that he’d been secretly dosed with LSD. Morris has gathered an estimable cast of actors to play real-life characters, including Peter Sarsgaard as Frank and Molly Parker as his wife (Westworld’s Jimmi Simpson has what amounts to a baffling cameo as a sinister man with no name and no dialogue). The director renders these scenes in gorgeous period detail that evokes the feel of a Todd Haynes movie. But all too often they slow the series down rather than add actual grist to the question of what Frank knew that might have gotten him killed.

It’s a true-crime documentary with a terminal case of Netflix bloat; an investigation into a heavily reported subject that ultimately yields no new information. The biggest asset Morris has is Eric Olson, Frank’s son, who’s spent the better part of his life trying to uncover the facts about his father’s death 64 years ago. Olson becomes the show’s de facto narrator, unspooling detail after detail in his absorbing, mellifluous voice. His heavy presence onscreen further complicates Wormwood’s line-treading between a journalistic endeavor and a polemical one, a balance that Morris pioneered in The Thin Blue Line, which used similar staged reenactments of witness statements to weigh the potential innocence of a convicted killer. There’s less to litigate in Wormwood about Morris’s technique, simply because so many of the theories about Olson’s death—and the CIA’s involvement in it—have already been reported, making formerly shocking theories easier to digest.

In 1953, as Eric Olson explains, and as Morris re-creates, Frank Olson was an army scientist working at Fort Detrick in Maryland, where the U.S. biological weapons program was based. Wormwood painstakingly reenacts the nine days leading up to Olson’s death at the Statler Hotel in New York, starting with Day One, when he was unwittingly given LSD at a routine summit with CIA agents and interrogated. Morris conveys Frank’s altered state with unsettling artistry, capturing how a moose head mounted on the wall appears to exhale, and how voices in the room slur and stretch in nightmarish fashion.

Later, though, the reenactments become more abstract, featuring Frank wading in a lake, and an endless visual of a figure walking toward a door. Compared with the enticing nuggets being dropped by Eric Olson in his interviews—how Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld coordinated a presidential apology for the LSD scenario to keep the Olson family away from the actual details—the staged scenes feel more and more like filler, simply B-roll that pads out the real revelations. Their pacing is glacial, involving Pinter-esque pauses and interminable dialogue. In one sequence that somehow lasts upwards of three minutes, Frank tells his wife that the CIA is concerned he’s a danger to his family. Silence. “I’m not sure I understand,” she replies, followed by more silence.

In the documentary scenes, Morris also repeatedly emphasizes the analogy between Eric Olson and Hamlet being driven mad by his father’s death—a comparison that’s foisted rather than earned. In many ways Eric feels like the sanest presence in the film, even if he’s abandoned a promising career to dedicate himself to justice for his father. He rattles off facts at a clip, from the biographies of the men who traveled with his father to New York to the times and dates of key moments in the case. And though Morris uses a splitscreen effect and multiple cameras simultaneously to convey a sense of his fractured psyche, Eric assesses his own mental state with clarity and insight, recalling how his father’s death sparked a feeling of disconnection that he’s never been able to shake. “I feel like I have let this go, but it hasn’t let me go,” he tells Morris. “All the things that I know now, I needed to know when I was 30. I needed truth a long time ago.”

The paradox of Wormwood is that the most interesting questions are the ones that have no answer. The six episodes offer an intricate and meticulous reenactment of the circumstances surrounding Frank Olson’s death, but they spend maddeningly little time on the broader conspiracies—on MKUltra, for example, or Project Artichoke, which Frank was possibly involved in, and which is mentioned only once with no context. Eric Olson and Morris both seem convinced that Frank was murdered, and they offer plausible theories that he knew too much, and threatened the CIA with exposure. Olson remembers his mother talking about Frank’s dismay regarding his job, which the son links to supposed U.S. biological warfare during the Korean War. But Morris doesn’t do much digging into the history that might support this claim—it’s as if his focus is so obsessively trained on Frank that anything outside his hemisphere is fuzzy and vague. Nor are there many sources in the film who aren’t intimately linked to the case, and who therefore might be able to offer an objective interpretation of events.

If it were a two-hour film, Wormwood might be a brilliant, uneasy dive into dark CIA deeds, and their long-term ramifications for family members whose loved ones were sacrificed for the nebulous cause of “national security.” Running twice that long, it loses all energy and dramatic propulsion. Still, Morris makes a persuasive case that there’s sinister stuff to be unraveled here, and that the CIA is the only organization that can shed light on its former actions. As Harry Huge, one of the Olson family lawyers, notes in a blithely shocking observation, one of the biggest injustices in the U.S. is that you can only sue the government for negligent death, not murder. Frank Olson’s death is clearly just one piece of a puzzle that stretches much, much further into the murkiness of history.