In 'Wormwood,' Errol Morris finds a limit to how many layers a mystery can have
By Hank Stuever, The Washington Post
Dec. 20, 2017 at 6:45 p.m.
There's always time to see what Errol Morris has been up to lately.
Best known for his documentaries, especially 1988's "The Thin Blue Line" and 2003's Oscar-winning "The Fog of War," Morris' stylistic influence on the genre still is widely seen in such high-grade, psychologically layered documentaries as "The Keepers" and "The Jinx." It's also evident in today's glut of true-crime shows on cable and streaming services. Podcasters, too, are indebted to Morris for making the world safe for intelligent meandering, in which a storyteller diligently chisels at a complicated and even arcane subject with no guarantee of a satisfying conclusion.
Morris' new project is a mildly intriguing if somewhat overwrought docu-series for Netflix called "Wormwood," which takes an old and previously covered story — the CIA's connection to the 1953 death of germ-warfare scientist Frank Olson, who either jumped or was thrown from the window of a Manhattan hotel room — and tries to bring its darkest and still-uncertain elements out into the light of day.
The 69-year-old director also gets to indulge his love of classic noir films, devoting a large chunk of the series to scripted re-enactments and other supposed events, starring actor Peter Sarsgaard as Olson.
"Wormwood" is presented as a stylish hybrid of many forms — documentary, "Mad Men"-era noir, art collage and clip-job — none of which comes through with total success. The better story here, which Morris devotes nominal attention to near the end, is the singular and even heartbreaking obsession of Olson's son Eric, who was a boy when his father died. Eric has spent the better part of five decades trying to pry more details loose, even as those with firsthand knowledge have all mostly died.
If told in a straightforward manner, a review of the Olson case might hold a viewer's interest for a 75-minute film — after all, who doesn't love a cautionary tale about unchecked powers within the intelligence world?
Morris, however, delivers six episodes of roughly 40 minutes each, peeling this onion as slowly and artfully as possible, taking repeat laps around the story in hopes that multiple perspectives and resonant mantras of facts and findings (as well as metaphorical snips from Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of "Hamlet") will help the viewer become similarly obsessed. It's possible that some will; as a binge-watch, "Wormwood" is painless but not nearly as captivating as it attempts to be. The case has simply gone too cold.
Some viewers may recall the news coverage that accompanied a presidential commission's 1975 findings that Frank Olson, who was working on bioweapons research at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had been dosed with LSD by CIA operatives nine days before he died. The family received an official apology, a meeting with President Gerald Ford and a financial settlement. But Eric Olson kept pressing for more information, the start of a long journey of obfuscated twists and turns.
The story comes with just the sort of eerie coincidences on which Morris's techniques normally thrive. The re-enacted flashbacks are beautifully filmed, providing infinite choreographic options for Olson's plunge (initially ruled a suicide) from his hotel room. Sarsgaard is in his element, portraying a normally reserved government employee and family man who wigs out on acid and then experiences the paranoid feelings (and justified anxiety) that hound him right up until the instant he hits the sidewalk.
But what is Morris after here? New evidence? Answers? Is Morris invested in solving the mystery or more intrigued by Eric's lifelong obsession and possibly misdirected grief? Near the end, the story turns to famous investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who at one point agreed to help Eric. Hersh apparently found some new information, but decided not to publish it. (Hersh says doing so might reveal the identity of his anonymous source.)
An easily irritable Hersh tells Morris that he and Eric are no longer speaking, but his initial advice to Eric still holds: Let it go.
For someone like Morris, "let it go" is merely an invitation to delve deeper, even at the risk of ending up with little to no payoff. But when all is said and done, even Morris seems to be telling Eric, in a very elaborate way, to let it go.
"I feel like I've let it go," Eric says. "But it hasn't let me go."