Movie Review: Cinematic Super Sleuth Errol Morris Blurs The Lines In ‘Wormwood’
In the early morning hours of November 28, 1953, Dr. Frank Olson, a specialist in bacterias working for the Army, plunged from the upper floor of his midtown Manhattan hotel room. The government said that he had been depressed and probably committed suicide.
But in 1975 it was revealed that Olson had been dosed with LSD without his knowledge as part of the CIA’s secret MK-Ultra mind control project and had freaked out. Then in 2015, the probable real story — as depicted in the magnificent, line-blurring Wormwood series now streaming on Netflix — was revealed: Olson was murdered because he knew too much about the U.S.’s germ warfare program, including the possibility that germ warfare had been employed in the Korean War.
Wormwood, directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris, is a study in doubleness.
It explores what is truth and what passes for truth. It is a 240-minute film (that has come and gone from your local multiplex) and a mini-series chopped into six 45-minute segments. It is both a true-crime documentary and fictional reenactment, with Peter Sarsgaard playing Olson.
Morris frequently employs a double screen with the director/interviewer on one screen and Olson’s oldest son, Eric, on the other, with interwoven cutaways to the reenactment, old photographs, home movies, television clips and snippets of Laurence Olivier’s screen adaptation of Hamlet. Eric, of course, is the melancholy Danish prince.
The pacing of Wormwood, especially in mini-series form, is unhurried. That was Morris’s intention, so viewers who aren’t grabbed by the story early on may find themselves becoming bored. Too bad for them.
A clock on the wall of the bare interview room is stopped between 2:30 and 2:35, the approximate time of Frank Olson’s death. Morris stops short of a definite answer to what the circumstances of that death were, but it is difficult not to believe the conclusion Eric has reached after decades of dogged research while being lied to repeatedly by the government: Frank Olson was a victim of state-sanctioned murder.