It’s somewhat surprising that Errol Morris’ Wormwood seems to be the first documentary to combine a cast with big names for the dramatic scenes with the traditional doc-staples of talking heads, collages, home movies and grainy photos. It’s a balancing act in more ways than one, and here, it seems to work, if only just. Wormwood is about the death of Frank Olson, who seemed to have fallen out of a 13th story hotel room window in New York and died on the sidewalk in his underwear. He was a CIA chemist who worked for the U.S. army and did research for biological warfare. For years, the story went like this: Olson, together with some of his workmates, was drugged with LSD in November 1953 for a new project about mind control, had a bad trip and finally committed suicide ten days later by leaping to his death. It was an accident, the CIA said, and they were sorry, and the Olson family got to meet President Johnson, who apologized for the tragedy, and the CIA promised to stop all mind-control projects, and that was that.
The dramatic scenes involve Peter Sarsgaard as Olson, Molly Parker as his wife, and CIA operatives played by Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban, Jimmi Simpson and Christian Camargo. Those dramatic scenes themselves are really well done cineastically, particularly the intro, considering that Morris does not have too much experience in directing drama, but they seem disjointed and too short, and they are all too soon interrupted by documentary segments, so much so that, for instance, Tim Blake Nelson is on screen for three minutes all in all. Once you’ve seen all of the series, you realize that a chunk of the drama in the beginning is at least partly misleading because it presents us with a version of events that is no longer true at the end of it. That is perfectly acceptable in a purely dramatic feature – no-one wants to reveal whodunnit in the first minutes of the movie -, but in a doc directed by Errol Morris, such a shifting around of facts hurts the impact of the whole enterprise.
The juxtaposition of drama and facts is also an uneasy one in the first three episodes. Since Wormwood is at least half a documentary, the dramatic scenes cannot yet tell us in full what happened, but those scenes in themselves are so unclear that they seem to stand at right angles with the docu-scenes. We are shown that Olson’s drink gets laced with LSD in one single scene, and then ten days later dies in New York because of what seemed to be a bad trip. What kind of LSD high lasts all of ten days? Did he take some more LSD? Was it slipped to him, or did he take it voluntarily as a part of the research team? These are questions that only the very last episode is ready to answer, and before that moment comes, the series runs the risk of being perceived as a story with holes in it, or as sloppy storytelling.
Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker can have great on-screen chemistry – check out Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World if you need proof -, but here, they have a few seconds together, which leaves them almost no room to show what they are to each other. Later, Parker gets more screen time to flesh out Alice Olson, bringing her to life, but Sarsgaard is strangely passive and unreadable during the first hundred minutes, which is an odd choice since his Frank Olson is the focus of the entire series. In the latter half of Wormwood, that hiatus between drama and doc grows steadily smaller because Morris is zeroing in on what really seems to have happened, and so the two genres get reconciled to a great extent. (Wormwood exists as a 241-minute feature at a handful of theatres, but most of us will see it as a six-parter on Netflix.)
These are all small squabbles I have with the series. The real revelation of Wormwood is Frank Olson’s son Eric. A young boy when his father died, he is now almost an old man, ready to admit that his 60-year search for what happened in that hotel room has driven him slightly crazy. However, here is the thing about Eric Olson: he is often upset, angry, hurt and confused, and undestandably so, but he doesn’t let himself allow to be ruled by any of those feelings; I believe him when he says he is bitter, but bitterness does not guide his statements. He is still able to make sense of these feelings, to argue coherently, to talk about memories and regrets, and incredibly, to find some kind of truth. He has had many decades to think about his father’s death and seems to have come to some surprising conclusions. He is not the most sympathetic man – his mind is too obsessed with his dad for that, but it’s fascinating to listen to him. No wonder Errol Morris made a four hour doc about him, and not just a feature-length documentary. His eloquence made me wonder if the dramatic inserts were really necessary, and if they did have to be played by such a prime cast. There are also excerpts from Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), and Martin Luther (1953), the latter of which Frank Olson was supposed to have seen shortly before his death.
Eric Olson has no family and has given up a prestigious academic career in psychology in order to delve full-time into his father’s life and death. That is, of course, Errol Morris’ forte: to get people to say things on camera. He has done it with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War (2003) and with Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (2013). Whereas Morris managed to be critical of both politicians while still wheedling outrageous statements out of them, he is entirely on Olson’s side.