'Wormwood’ Blends Truth and Speculation

Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris has always tried to push the boundaries of documentary outward, and in this Netflix series he takes it to strange, compelling places.

click to enlarge Bob Balaban (left) and Peter Sarsgaard in "Wormwood" - PHOTO: Courtesy of Netflix
PHOTO: Courtesy of Netflix
Bob Balaban (left) and Peter Sarsgaard in "Wormwood"

Since the release of his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, a combination of interviews and aestheticized drama structured to prove a death row inmate’s innocence, director Errol Morris’ work has tested the boundaries of truth and fiction. He’s one of our greatest documentarians, winning an Academy Award for 2003’s The Fog of War, but he’s also a restless one, seeking new ways to pursue truth.

His new six-part Netflix series Wormwood (each episode is 40 minutes) disregards the rules of both documentary and drama even further than he has done previously, with its brushstrokes of surrealism and haunting reality.

At its center is a single, cemented fact: In November 1953, a scientist who worked at a United States Army research lab, Frank Olson, died after falling from a hotel-room window in New York City. That term “falling” is revisited over and over again by his son, Eric — the main subject of the interviews — as he grapples for some sense of truth, steadfast in his belief that the death of his father was at the hands of the CIA. Did he fall, dive or was he dropped?

“You’ll never know what happened in that room,” Eric says his mother, Alice, told him. At the end of the series, even when he does know, the truth still feels incomplete. Despite the entrancingly controlled dramatic scenes, it’s Wormwood’s interview with Eric — sitting with director Morris at a long table bordered by windows — that truly sticks.

Frank Olson’s death was initially classified as an accident, causing Eric to sink into a murkiness he’s never truly left. In 1975, his family received an explanation from President Gerald Ford, becoming the only family to be apologized to in the Oval Office. Frank, Ford said, had been dosed with LSD as part of a CIA experiment and reacted badly, causing his suicide. But are there still further government secrets about his death that have never been revealed? Wormwood explores that.

Eric’s voice swells and recedes with flashes of anger and frustration as he recounts this story; by Wormwood’s finale, he admits that he has lost himself. Home videos of his childhood interpose with his words as he says this — his dad pushing him in a swing and later teaching him how to swim. “Because the value of the loss is infinite, the sacrifice is infinite,” Eric says, as a video shows him falling back into the water. “Pft. You’re gone.”

Wormwood begins as a conspiracy story, laced in tales of the CIA and its secret MKUltra program that tested LSD. It becomes a stark portrait of a man driven by the grief of not knowing, of being lied to and of never finding the satisfaction of closure.

Morris ends nearly every episode at the same scene: a crash of glass, billowing off-white hotel curtains and Frank (portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard) falling/diving/dropped to the ground.

The scripted period-accurate scenes play with shadow: A figure walks down a hotel hall and his edges blur as he moves toward the window and is seemingly engulfed by daylight. Moments are stretched thin in the wake of suspense: Dr. Robert Lashbrook (portrayed by Christian Camargo), in the hotel room the night of Frank’s death, places his head in his hands, bent over. Music mounts. Small noises are amplified; the sound of a coffee cup placed on a table, the rustling of a hand in a purse, the swish of curtains, feet against floorboards and the rise and fall of shaky breath.

Besides such staged scenes, the segmented interviews with Eric, as well as with journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the story in 1975) and family lawyer Harry Huge, are shot just as creatively. At times, Morris employs multiple panels to overwhelming effect.

The series’ name comes from a line spoken by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Eric sees himself as the tragic Danish prince. Throughout Wormwood, scenes from Laurence Olivier’s classic 1948 Hamlet flicker through, creating a sense of myth and texture.

Wormwood is as compelling as it is paranoia-inducing in the way it uses a fragmented lens to search for the nature of truth while questioning whether the answer is ever obtainable. In the end, its conclusions are left unsaid: a chorus of whispers left in the trenches of history.  ©