Film Review: Wormwood

The theatrical edit of Errol Morris’ four-hour, partially dramatized nonfiction dive into the conspiracy theories swirling around the 1953 death of a researcher in a CIA experiment is an unforgettable experience.
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When Eric Olson was still just a child in 1953, his father Frank died while away on business. The official explanation was that Frank fell or possibly jumped out of a hotel room. “At that moment,” Eric says in Errol Morris’ epic new investigation of the mysteries surrounding Frank’s death, “the world stopped making sense entirely.” That burning ember of uncertainty stayed with Eric the rest of his life.

Now a wiry and eminently sensible-seeming old man, Eric faces Morris’ daunting Interrotron camera rig with a straight face and describes the impossible. Thought experiments, drugs, cover-ups, human guinea pigs, the Cold War—it’s all the stuff of something blurted out by frantic e-mailers to conspiracy websites. Morris enhances the mysterious nature of the story Eric is telling by threading in lengthy recreations of the events surrounding it. Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson and others act out the scenes with a gloomy finality, as though already in mourning. Providing the spine to these somewhat ghostly reenactments, Eric explains how he has spent the spent the last half-century-plus rattling the cages of power to get a true explanation of what happened to Frank, only to end up living in the same house he grew up in, no closer to the end of his journey than at the beginning.

Frank Olson was a biochemist who worked in the special-warfare division at Fort Detrick in Maryland after World War II. This was where the U.S. Army was working on biological weapons. During the mid-1970s Congressional investigations into CIA activities, it was revealed that the agency was working in conjunction with the Fort Detrick team on mind-control experiments. At a time, the news was aflame with stories about the Red Chinese supposedly brainwashing American POWs captured in Korea. The CIA developed the MK-ULTRA program to study brainwashing from both sides: how to fight it and how to perform it. According to the 1975 Rockefeller Commission Report, part of MK-ULTRA involved feeding LSD to researchers. Frank Olson was one of them. The official story was that Frank reacted badly to the drug-testing regimen and then either jumped or fell out of the window. In 1976, after receiving profuse apologies from the government, including a visit with President Ford (a curious historical moment captured on film and included here), the Olson family received a settlement.

But as shocking and embarrassing as the official explanation was, it never made sense to Eric, who began a decades-long fight to find out what really happened. Eric’s dedicated and level-headed stubbornness in the face of such long odds and institutional resistance lends his mission the credence many similar truth-seekers fail to attain. Many of the conspiracy theorists whose obsessions propel many nonfiction films are driven, unconsciously or not, by a desire to replace an anodyne reality (a suicide or random murder) with a more dramatically thrilling fantasy (multi-pronged coverups with numerous shadowy villains pursuing diabolical goals).

As Wormwood unspools over the course of four-plus hours, Eric seems to be coming at things from the opposite direction. He is faced with a story that touches on everything from mind control to Watergate, and so became an ur-text for the Cold War shadow world of half-truths and paranoia that continues to power pulp fantasies even today (just try watching Wormwood without blinking back to everything from Watchmen to The X-Files; it doesn’t work). Morris shoots the recreations in a David Lynchian murk that suggests a universe of arcane possibilities. But the movie is ultimately quite serious and buttoned-up, making a case that the LSD-freakout narrative may have been just the cover story for a grimmer reality.

Taking its name from the Book of Revelations and nodding to Hamlet, Morris’ kaleidoscopic fever dream unfolds in an appropriately woozy and world-ending manner. Wormwood is a bit much in the full theatrical edit, its chime-like repetitiveness possibly better viewed in the half-dozen episodes that will show on Netflix. But viewing it all at once does greater justice not just to the sense of a living nightmare trapping the clear-eyed and haunted Eric, but his gnawing worry that ultimately no answer will be satisfactory.

The world never made sense to Eric after that day in 1953 when he was told, “Your father had an accident.” After watching Wormwood, with its forking trees of investigation and dead-end hunches, viewers will know at least in part how he continues to feel.

Click here for cast and crew information.