New on Netflix: Errol Morris doc series 'Wormwood' burrows into CIA, secret LSD program, and mysterious death of Army bio-weapons man
Morris combines extensive dramatizations with interviews, archival footage for powerful storytelling experience
Two years ago Netflix entranced audiences with the true crime series Making a Murderer. This holiday season Netflix fans may feel compelled to binge-watch another tangled story of true crime -- and much more -- in the Errol Morris documentary series Wormwood.
The series, airing in six parts, debuted Friday (December 16) on the streaming service and a theatrical version is now playing at Metrograph in New York and at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. In Wormwood, Morris -- who worked as a private investigator at one point in his life -- applies his detective skills to a case of extraordinary complexity revolving around a man named Frank Olson.
The important thing to remember in detective work you're never assured of any definitive outcome. You're trying to find out something but you may not find out anything. Or what you find out may be compromised in many different ways. Some questions may be answered, others not so much.
Olson, a bacteriologist and germ warfare scientist at the Army's Fort Detrick in Maryland, fell to his death in November 1953 while on a visit to New York.
"Frank Olson went out a window at the Statler Hotel in 1953, just right after Thanksgiving. Went down 13 floors to 7th Avenue, died on that sidewalk and no one knows, really, what happened," Morris told Nonfictionfilm.com. "What in hell happened in that room, and why? That's at the center of Wormwood."
Frank Olson's eldest son Eric -- a boy at the time of his father's death -- has spent his entire life trying to solve that mystery.
"For 22 years [until 1975], Eric was never really told anything that made any sense about his father's death," Morris explained. "They said, well, he jumped or he fell. Did he commit suicide? Was it an accident, something else?"
Eric Olson serves as the linchpin in Wormwood -- a man who could not give up on his pursuit of the truth. But when you're going up against a government intent on keeping its secrets, that can prove a ruinous quest.
In 1975 the Olson family ostensibly did get some answers about what had occurred in room 1018A of the Statler Hotel. That came as a result of a report by the Rockefeller Commission, which had been set up by the Ford administration to investigate the CIA and a secret unit within the spy agency known as MK-Ultra. Frank Olson, it turned out, had worked closely over a lengthy period with members of MK-Ultra. He had met up with some of them at a cabin in the Maryland woods less than two weeks before his death.
"MK-Ultra was the Manchurian Candidate program, a program designed to produce, say, programmed assassins, or to change memories, or to erase memories altogether," Morris explained. "At the end of the Rockefeller Report they mentioned, almost casually, this Army scientist who was given LSD surreptitiously, dosed with LSD at a retreat in Western Maryland. Eric hears this... Eric knows who it is. It's daddy."
So there it was -- the "aha moment" -- Frank Olson had experienced a bad LSD trip which sent him spiraling toward his untimely death. End of story? Not even close.
The family got an unprecedented personal apology from a sitting president -- Gerald Ford -- in the Oval Office. Ford also ordered the head of the CIA -- William Colby -- to give the family CIA files that detailed the circumstances around Olson's death. But that purported transparency turned out to be opaque.
At the end of the Rockefeller Report they mentioned, almost casually, this Army scientist who was given LSD surreptitiously, dosed with LSD at a retreat in Western Maryland.
"Colby... lays on the family a pile of documents, big pile of documents, hundreds of pages of material, and they're told, 'This is it, this is what we have on Frank Olson. You've got everything. You happy?'" Morris said. "Only problem is when you start looking at these documents carefully it doesn't quite make sense and it's pretty damn clear that they've taken stuff out, that there must be more, that this isn't all that there is, that the CIA is involved in yet another kind of coverup -- a different coverup, but a coverup nevertheless."
These twists and turns, revelations and obfuscations make up the crux of Wormwood, expertly realized by Morris through the use of family home movies, additional archival sources, interviews with Eric Olson and others who helped Olson investigate the case.
All of those elements constitute the normal tools of the documentarian. But Morris has never obeyed traditional nonfiction rules, and he takes Wormwood much further by incorporating large-scale dramatizations of aspects of the story.
The director cast an impressive group of actors to portray the key characters in Wormwood: Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson; Molly Parker as Olson's wife; Scott Shepherd as Olson's boss and supposed friend at Fort Detrick; Tim Blake Nelson, Christian Camargo and Bob Balaban as shadowy figures associated with MK-Ultra.
"I can't imagine a better cast to work with. The whole lot of them. And they enjoyed it, which made it even more enjoyable for me," Morris told us. "Peter Sarsgaard at an awards ceremony in New York said I was the best director he had ever had. It's nice to hear."
"So what did I dramatize? I dramatized the Colby Documents. I took the story that the CIA created, which may or may not be true -- it's discussed in the film that it's probably untrue -- and I turned it into a little movie inside of my movie," Morris explained.
The series raises deeply disturbing questions -- did the government arrange to have Frank Olson killed? Did the U.S. deploy germ warfare -- the program Frank Olson worked on at Fort Detrick -- during the Korean War? What is our government capable of doing, and then hiding from us?
"For me that was always the question: what is this about?" Eric Olson puts it in Wormwood. "Well, it's about the position that the United States found itself in the post-War period for which it wasn't prepared. And it began to do things which put its own democratic institutions in great jeopardy. How could you have a democracy if your institutions are doing things that the public can't know about?"
The director's own search for truth across his film career -- in documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, The Unknown Known and now in Wormwood, aligns him in a sense with Eric Olson, who abandoned a promising academic career to hunt down the truth about his father's demise.
There is nobility in that given the times we live in.
"Truth is truth. But truth has become politicized as if somehow believing in something is a matter of politics. But it isn't. Truth is still truth and will remain truth after all of us are gone," Morris insists. "I think it's important to understand that what separates us from animals, if anything, is that we pursue truth, that we try to ascertain what's true and what's false. Not saying that we always can do that, but we try. You can't just declare something to be true and that makes it so. Doesn't work that way. Sorry, Kellyanne Conway."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.