Wormwood, the new Netflix miniseries/theatrical film from documentarian Errol Morris, covers many topics: the untimely death of a father and the havoc such an event wreaks on his offspring; the CIA’s history of experimenting with mind-controlling drugs like LSD; journalistic ethics and the responsibility a reporter has to his or her sources. Most of all, though, Wormwood is about deception: How far and how well will someone (or some government entity) go to keep secrets buried? And what can we deduce from the stories that inevitably leak out over time?
Morris himself is well aware of the conundrum he’s got himself and his viewers in while trying to piece together the circumstances of how, exactly, biological warfare scientist and CIA employee Frank Olson’s life came to a sudden, bloody end when he plummeted 13 stories from a hotel room window in New York in November 1953. And he’s trying a different strategy to get to the bottom of it.
Setting aside the Interrotron filming technique he’s used in projects ranging from his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War to Apple commercials, this time Morris relies on what he calls the “everything bagel” approach to investigating the Olson case. In Wormwood, he mixes home movies, a lot of Shakespearean imagery, one-on-one interviews with the likes of Olson’s eldest son, Eric, a clinical psychologist, and recreations based on government documents, which feature a cast of well-regarded actors—Peter Sarsgaard as the ill-fated Frank, Molly Parker as his stoic wife, and Bob Balaban as a shady “allergist” hired by Frank’s employers.
You can even see Morris himself on screen in some shots, a first-time occurrence for the documentarian. When we spoke at Netflix’s Los Angeles offices last month, Morris, an imposing figure with an equally intimidating voice, told me that he decided now was the right time for the decision: “I’ve been the investigator many times, but I like the idea that there’s me and there’s Eric in a lot of material.”
Here’s the catch with Wormwood: Is all of this in vain? Were these official papers, released with the blessing of former CIA chief William Colby during the Ford administration and supposedly in good faith, actual accounts of what happened? And is Morris depicting them as such? As an interviewer, Morris knows that he must not take everything that he’s given as fact (he tells me he’s “credulous, but not that credulous”), but, to borrow a line from another man known for historical recreation, he wasn’t in the room where it happened.
“I took those Colby documents, and you read through them and you read through them and you read through them. And the more you read through them, you think, ‘Wait a second. Is this some imaginative fiction?’” he says. “Is this an elaborate cover-up to find out what really happened? Is it as if the CIA had created a kind of novel, a work of fiction, to obliterate any trace of what actually happened?”
Like the reenactments he used in his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which helped exonerate an innocent man convicted of murder, Morris says, “these aren’t straight reenactments.” Instead, Morris tells me, gaining momentum and pounding his fist on the conference table next to us for emphasis, “They’re straight drama based on the Colby documents; based on things that I don’t think are true that… [are] at the heart of this documentary.”
Wormwood is not the Frank Olson case’s pop culture debut. It’s also featured in Jon Ronson’s book about the U.S. Army’s deep dive into New Age concepts and the paranormal, The Men Who Stare at Goats. Morris says he heard about it while researching Project MKUltra, the CIA mind-control program that he calls “a wet dream of conspiracy theorists” and one that has been cited in everything from the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald to turning Ted Kaczynski into the Unabomber. When Morris couldn’t get the rights he wanted for that documentary, he pivoted.
“I did not realize, going into this, how complex the story would be. But it turned out to be incredibly complex and interesting,” Morris says of Frank Olson’s death. “When governments try to cover up their tracks, sometimes they can be successful. Sometimes, they just don’t do the cover-up well enough. There’s little bits and pieces; shards of material that are left over, and the Olson case is an example of this.”
Equally interesting to Morris is how this horrific event shaped the lives of Frank Olson’s three kids, who didn’t know much about the circumstances of their father’s death until the Rockefeller Commission uncovered more details in 1975. Even then, there were holes. Fittingly, it was Eric Olson himself who pointed out the parallels between his determination to avenge his dad and the tragedy that befell Hamlet during a similar quest. (The series’ title grew out of a line the great Danish prince mutters to himself whilst attempting to sweat out his own culprit).
“Hamlet is a story about a son pursuing the murder of his father,” Morris says, explaining that with “wormwood being the most bitter of all plants,” his is also a tale “about bitterness, about the world being not what you hoped it was and wanted it to be, but something far worse.” (Fun fact: Sarsgaard was starring in a production of Hamlet with New York’s Classic Stage Company when Morris approached him about the role.)
There is also some known deception on the part of the filmmaker. For one, Eric’s brother Nils, who has also been vocal about the misinformation surrounding their father’s death, is not interviewed here. Nor is Eric’s son mentioned, thus creating an impression that he is a lonely, obsessive man. But, as Morris acknowledges, you can’t interview everybody.
“I know that Eric never told his brother that this film was being made, which is kind of odd,” Morris tells me. “And maybe he would have refused to be interviewed, I don’t know. But I didn’t interview the brother for a whole number of reasons. I thought the story was much more powerful as this strange, lonely story from Eric.”
There may still be time for the other Olsons to talk, though. At the risk of spoilers, Wormwood does not offer a definitive answer as to what happened to Frank Olson. This is, the film suggests, partly because of reporter Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist who has long worked on the case, but who now tells Morris he can’t report more for fear of endangering his sources. (“The LSD was bad, but what really happened was something worse,” he says ominously at one point in the miniseries.)
Morris says he thinks he’s close to finding out the truth about Frank Olson’s death. He feels he owes it to himself and to Eric to get it.
“I’m pretty sure that I know that he was murdered,” Morris says. “I have little doubt. Who ordered it and why? I have some ideas of why that happened, but I don’t know for sure. And there is a story that has not yet been told about all of this that is very powerful and interesting. And I’m still digging.”
This isn’t the first time Morris has gotten deeply invested in his subject. He met with The Thin Blue Line killer David Harris “just hours before he was executed in Texas, and if that’s not a strange feeling of closure, I don’t know what is.” Of Morris’ book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, which delves into the case of the Green Beret accused of killing his family in 1970, he says, “I cannot come up with a definitive answer about what happened. I can say that the trial was a miscarriage of justice because I don’t feel like he got a fair trial. But I can’t sit here and tell you that I know was innocent. I can’t tell you that I know that he was guilty.”
Morris says he likes this project’s format of using dashes of so many narrative devices. Although, “next time around,” he says, “I’d like to shift the balance a little bit further toward drama.”
So does that mean there’s potential for Wormwood 2?
“Maybe Wormwood Plus,” he says.
Wormwood premieres Friday, Dec. 15 on Netflix, as well as in select U.S. theaters and globally.