PRINT February 2018


Errol Morris’s Wormwood

Errol Morris, Wormwood, 2017, still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 1. Frank Olson (Peter Sarsgaard).

EVERY WHICH WAY, Errol Morris’s Wormwood is of the moment, and not only because it’s a crime series made for binge-watching. There’s the distrust of all government and law enforcement; the obsessive search for a secret or overlooked piece of information that could reveal the whole truth and nothing but the truth; and even the renewed focus on the Korean War and its aftermath.

When I began watching Wormwood (the six-episode Netflix series, rather than the roughly four-hour movie version that played briefly at Metrograph in New York and at a few other theaters), I still was in the throes of what had been a year of MSNBC obsession—not just Rachel Maddow at 9 pm, but Rachel Maddow on repeat, as well as pretty much everything before and after her show. I’m ashamed of this addiction—of the time I wasted not reading books, listening to music, or watching movies, not to mention not demonstrating against the greedy tyrants of the Right, who are destroying everything necessary for the health and happiness of individuals, society, and the planet. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t value Maddow, an excellent investigative journalist who holds the screen like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940). But maybe I don’t need to listen, three times a day, to every word she says so that I can wake up the next morning repeating it.

A pursuit of the particular ways in which the medium can be employed
in the search for truth has been the unifying factor in Morris’s filmmaking.

The Rachel Maddow Show was for me like the books I’d ask my parents to read aloud over and over again before I could do the same myself. The compulsion to reiterate is behaviorally regressive, especially when it is not connected to a practice such as art or religion that acknowledges exact repetition to be impossible, given that time does not stand still. What first released me from the grip of this masochistic indulgence was picturing the rotting turnip-head in the White House—a case study for Freud’s theory of repetition and the death instinct—watching Fox & Friends as desperately as I watched Maddow. What seemed to complete the cure—though cure may be too positive a term for the psychological shift of replacing my own obsessive behavior with an obsession with a cautionary tale about another’s obsession—was Wormwood.

A pursuit of the particular ways in which the medium can be employed in the search for truth has been the unifying factor in Morris’s filmmaking. While the tactical diversity of this quest is admirable, most of the resulting films are problematic. One can’t dispute the concrete effect of The Thin Blue Line (1988); its subject—Randall Dale Adams—was on death row for a murder he did not commit but was eventually released when his conviction was overturned, largely because of evidence that Morris (a former private detective) turned up while making the movie. On the other hand, Morris’s early documentaries, Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981),now seem painfully condescending to their subjects, while The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) and The Unknown Known (2013), whose subject is Donald Rumsfeld, suffer from the opposite problem. Morris’s strategy of letting both men prattle on—of allowing them to reveal themselves with their own words and the expressions on their faces as, at the very least, morally compromised and deceitful—backfires. The filmmaker seems reluctant to speak truth to power, i.e., to explicitly challenge their lies with the kinds of tough follow-up questions that a journalist with his skills should have had no trouble formulating. And if either subject had walked out on the interview, the point would have been made with less time and trouble.

Wormwood centers on a long conversation between Morris and the documentary’s subject, Eric Olson. Conversation is a more appropriate term here than interview because of the way the dialogue is staged for multiple cameras. We see Morris in a wide-angle two-shot, seated across from Eric, just often enough to remind us he’s there, even when Eric appears alone in close-up. They are two intelligent people discussing a problem that perplexes them both. The subtle power imbalance that has bedeviled so much of Morris’s work is not an issue.

In 1953, nine-year-old Eric was told that his father, Frank Olson, had died in an accident—specifically, that he had either fallen or jumped from the window of room 1018A of the Hotel Statler in New York City. The loss was traumatic, but what triggered Eric’s lifelong, all-consuming obsession with finding out the truth was the word accident. If Frank had “fallen or jumped,” was it really an accident? Eric went to Harvard, received a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and began developing a method of using image collages as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. As his investigation into what he gradually came to believe was his father’s “foul and unnatural murder” intensified and everything became “wormwood” to him, his profession fell by the wayside, as did an early romantic relationship.

Errol Morris, Wormwood, 2017, still from a TV show on Netflix. Episode 1. Eric Olson and Errol Morris.

Morris makes Eric’s psychotherapeutic-collage strategy into Wormwood’s structuring principle. (The title, referenced in the film through the Book of Revelations and Hamlet, is a term for a poison known for its bitterness.) Like all mysteries, Wormwood has a double narrative: that of the crime and that of its investigation. Eric’s narration is central to both. Morris allows Eric to tell the story mostly chronologically, surrounding Eric’s words with a dense, rhythmically agitated, associative montage of home-movie clips, photos, newspaper clippings, and television-talk-show excerpts. Most notably, he depicts Eric’s nightmarish imaginings—of what happened to his father in room 1018A and of the events that led up to Frank Olson’s death, including his mysterious nine days in New York—in a manner that is far more disturbing than the “reenactments” that became commonplace in documentary after Morris himself employed them in The Thin Blue Line.

He shapes these sequences as projections of Eric’s psyche. At the time of his death, Frank was working for the CIA on a mysterious project that involved drug testing. It was the period of the Korean War and of film noir, a genre of numbed protagonists who harbored secrets or feared surveillance for crimes they could not quite comprehend. Eric’s fragmentary imagining of his father’s secret life is filtered through the distinctive visual style and hollowed-out performances of noir. (Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olson and Molly Parker plays his helpless wife, who sank into alcoholism after Frank’s death and who met her son’s every effort to figure out how his father died with the mantra “You are never going to find out what happened in that room.”) Into this volatile mixture Morris also adds a few seconds of instantly recognizable images from Out of the Past (1947), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet (because Eric sees himself as a similarly conflicted son). And tipping his hand as to how he’s going to employ mainstream fictional imagery to represent historical memory, the opening credits of the first and last episodes begin with a man falling in slow motion, because who today doesn’t visualize the 1950s via Mad Men (2007–15)?

There are three key moments in Eric’s story. The first is the death of his father. The second occurs in 1975, with the Rockefeller Commission’s report on the CIA’s illegal surveillance of Americans; Seymour Hersh’s post-Watergate New York Times series on illegal activities by federal intelligence agencies; and a piece in the Washington Post about the suicide of a government employee (later found to be a member of the CIA) who had volunteered for an LSD experiment. All these caught Eric’s attention. The family was invited to the White House and offered an apology, $750,000 for their pain and suffering, and a huge cache of documents, which turned out to be suspicious in its disorder and omissions. Despite Hersh’s advice that he back off his investigation, Eric persevered. Then, two decades later, in 1997, Eric came to believe that the LSD story was a bright, shiny object to distract the public from a far darker possibility: that the CIA had been developing biological weapons to use in the Korean War, and that Frank, who had been involved in these experiments, had been murdered because he was considered a security risk. In the mid-1990s, Eric had his father’s body exhumed, and a private autopsy found that he had suffered head trauma before he fell ten stories. Eric later correlated this information with a 1953 CIA manual that describes the preferred method of killing someone as first rendering the person unconscious with a blow to the head and then dropping them from a height of at least seventy-five feet, with the intention of disguising the event as a suicide.

Eric continued his investigations and attempted to obtain justice for his father in court. In Wormwood’s final episode, Morris and Hersh concur, at least tacitly, that Eric’s scenario analysis of how, why, and on whose orders his father was killed is as close to the truth as anyone will ever get. But this does not mean that justice will be done. Perhaps Wormwood, by making public the story, will offer Eric some respite, if not release, from the prison of his obsession. It also should make us skeptical of trusting intelligence services to clean up what’s rotten in the United States.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.