Careful. The Truth Is Slippery.
Posted December 14, 2017 5:49 p.m. EST
“Wormwood,” Errol Morris’ new movie — a hybrid of documentary and fictional techniques drawn from blurred passages in the historical record — circles around a single painful, mysterious fact. On a November night in 1953, Frank Olson, a civilian scientist who worked at a U.S. Army research laboratory near Frederick, Maryland, died after falling from a hotel-room window in Manhattan.
The circumstances of his death — initially classified as an accident — remained murky until 1975, when Olson’s family received an explanation and an apology from the government. His widow and three children were offered a monetary settlement and given an audience at the White House with President Gerald Ford. It was disclosed that Olson had been unwittingly dosed with LSD as part of a secret CIA experiment, and that a bad reaction to the drug had caused him to kill himself.
This widely reported revelation was shocking at the time, but it also belonged to a welcome moment of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate reckoning with official lies and secrets. What happened to Olson was surely regrettable, but the belated official acknowledgment of wrongdoing could be seen as commendable. Everyone involved was sorry, and it wouldn’t happen again.
But what if that transparency was itself part of a larger cover-up? What if the display of accountability put on by the military and the CIA was actually the opposite — a false confession intended to distract attention from a far more sinister crime? Those are the questions that Morris pursues. They are the questions that have haunted his main interview subject, Frank Olson’s oldest son, Eric, for more than 60 years.
Varying his usual head-on methods, Morris often films himself and Olson in a two-shot, facing each other across a room in Olson’s childhood home. A clock on the wall is permanently stopped between 2:30 and 2:35, the approximate time of Frank Olson’s death. The conversations — at times strangely buoyant, given the gravity of the topics under discussion — are interwoven with old photographs, home movies and television clips.
They also, more strikingly, give way to re-enactments of what is known or believed to have happened in the days just before and after Frank Olson’s death. Peter Sarsgaard plays him as a troubled man with a sensitive face and a gentle demeanor, and he’s surrounded by other well-known character actors (including Bob Balaban and Tim Blake Nelson) in what can feel like a lost, unfinished Hitchcock movie. The world of the 1950s is a somber swirl of cigarette smoke and dark shadows, where people speak in whispered riddles, drink martinis and drive around in hulking automobiles. Olson seems like a quintessentially Hitchcockian wrong man, a relative innocent sucked into a vortex of conspiracy and preyed upon by men with sinister agendas and dubious scruples.
For Eric, he is more like the paternal ghost in “Hamlet,” which makes Eric the melancholy Danish prince. Scenes from Laurence Olivier’s screen adaptation of the play flicker into view now and then, enriching both the psychological and the visual texture of “Wormwood” (and providing, along with the Book of Revelation, a source for its title.) This is, like “Hamlet,” a tragedy at once public and intimate, an examination of how the impersonal violence of the state can damage and distort individual lives.
Eric Olson, who has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, does not come across as temperamentally prone to obsession, or intellectually inclined toward conspiracy theories. His fundamental sanity makes his story all the more heartbreaking: Like Hamlet, he has been driven to the brink of madness by doubts and suspicions that no amount of investigation can assuage. Morris, one of the great sleuths of modern cinema (who many years ago worked as a private detective), brings to “Wormwood” a long acquaintance with the slipperiness of truth and the deceptions of power. He listens with the patient attentiveness of a therapist and the quizzical intensity of a gumshoe.
For the audience, he is equally shamus and shaman, chasing down clues and trying to exorcise demons that plague the body politic. The LSD story, he and Olson conclude, was a plausible fairy tale: not exactly untrue, but very far from the whole truth. They illuminate long-standing forensic doubts about the idea that Frank Olson jumped from the window, and theorize that something even darker than mind-control techniques and brainwashing — biological warfare; state-sanctioned murder — lay behind his death. They enlist the help of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who somehow both supplies and withholds the corroboration they need for their theories.
“Wormwood” is haunted by doubleness. It’s a work of journalism and of imagination, of history and portraiture, of indignation and melancholy. (It’s also, simultaneously, a movie and a miniseries, streaming in six episodes on Netflix.) As such, it takes time to absorb, and invites repeated, obsessive watching. Eric Olson and Morris make claims that are vitally important — about the credibility of the U.S. government during the Cold War and ever since — in a spirit that seems more weary than urgent. Morris presents a powerful historical argument in the guise of a beguiling work of cinematic art — and vice versa.
In theaters and streaming on Netflix.
Not rated. Running time: 4 hours 1 minute.