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.