On November 28, 1953, Frank Olson plunged to his death from the 13th floor of New York’s Hotel Statler. This is beyond dispute. Virtually every other detail of the incident, however, raises questions. It’s hard for anyone fall out of a window by accident, particularly a window of no great size. It’s harder still for someone to throw themselves through the glass on their way down. Most suicides would take a moment to open the window before taking the plunge. Yet Olson’s death was ruled a suicide, leaving his family to puzzle over why he leaped to his death, if he leaped at all.
Over six episodes, Errol Morris’ Wormwood digs into that question, and the questions nested within it. The Olson incident is one in which every revelation raises more concerns, and one that became an all-consuming obsession for Frank’s son Eric, who was nine at the time of his father’s death. Speaking to Morris, he likens himself to Hamlet, a comparison that might seem grandiose if the story didn’t support it — to say nothing of elements that work as a parallel to Shakespeare’s drama. The Olsons’ story, like Hamlet’s, connects a family tragedy the soul of a nation itself. Once Wormwood reveals its full scope, it’s clear that Morris has helped shed light on something rotten.
Wormwod is a new sort of project for Morris in several respects. It an episodic piece made for TV, though it might work just as well as a long movie. (I watched it, rapt, in one sitting, and it will have a small theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles starting on December 15th.) It mixes interviews with dramatizations in ways that go beyond the approach Morris pioneered with The Thin Blue Line. Conversations with Eric Olson and others form the spine of the series, but the non-interview segments go beyond dramatic reenactments. Morris recruited Peter Sarsgaard to play Frank Olson, heading a cast that includes Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson, Christian Camargo, and Bob Balaban. It’s a melding of fact and fiction in search of a truth deeper than anything found in a classified report.
It’s also a stylistic break from Morris trademark approach. Gone is the Interrotron, the device he invented to talk directly to his subjects as they looked into the camera. Instead, Morris shoots his interviews from multiple angles, often with large chunks of the frame obscured by one object or another. Sometimes he even lets himself be filmed asking the question. Where in the past Morris attempted to gaze directly into a story and find the truth, everything in Wormwood suggests that the truth can only be found by looking at it from different perspectives.
(*) Or maybe he’s just ready to move on. Morris’ winning documentary about photographer Elsa Dorfman, The B-Side also ditched the Interrotron.
Here’s what we know: Olson was a scientist with multiple degrees in bacteriology. He worked for the army and the CIA and, 10 days before his death, took part in a retreat at Deer Creek Lake in Maryland. Shortly thereafter, he attempted to resign. Shortly after that, he was taken to New York for psychiatric help. Shortly after that, he died.
Here’s what the Olson family learned in the years leading up to a formal apology from Gerald Ford and the Central Intelligence Agency in 1975: Olson’s work involved the CIA. His bacteriology degrees led to him working on biowarfare. At Deer Creek, he’d been dosed with LSD as part of the CIA’s Project MKULTRA, an attempt to determine the practical applications of the then-new drug. Post-Watergate revelations brought these suspect dealings to light, and at this time the Olsons accepted a settlement in line with the new story: Olson had suffered a drug-induced nervous breakdown leading to his suicide. In one of the shadowiest chapters of 20th century American history, he became collateral damage.
And yet, as Eric came to suspect, that might not be the whole story. Wormwood is an attempt to get at that whole story that acknowledges from the start that this probably isn’t going to happen — from a hallucinatory opening recreating Frank Olson’s plunge to the exhausted demeanor his son strikes from his first moments on screen to his last. But that futility both deepens the mystery and enriches the themes. As Morris’ film progresses, it becomes clear that the revised official story of 1975 is no closer to what actually happened than the ludicrous original official story. Proving it, however, is another matter, even with Eric’s determination and the help of no less than Seymour Hersh, the journalist responsible for unearthing some of the U.S. government’s ugliest secrets.
The slow revelation of details keeps Wormwood compelling. Why, for instance, was Frank taken to an allergist rather than a psychologist? And what did said allergist (played creepily by Bob Balaban) hope to accomplish via a weird therapy that involved asking Frank to place his head inside some kind of isolation chamber? But, as ever, Morris is doing a few things at once. In the narrative sections, he brings an eerie airlessness that takes its cues from Sarsgaard’s haunted expression. Is his Frank Olson a man who’s lost his will to live or does that look come from the knowledge that the cards are stacked against him? And in Eric Olson he finds a fascinating obsessive character, one who, now on the other side of middle age, clearly realizes how much of his life he’s given up trying to uncover the truth. He’s frank about this as he is about seeing his father’s body unearthed after decades and still being able to recognize his face.
It’s a fascinating mystery that could have been designed to feed the hunger for true crime stirred by Serial and Making a Murderer. But it’s also a harrowing story of loss and what it means to live with the burden of never knowing the truth about your life and the country in which you live. And in that last respect, it’s a bigger story still, one in which Eric seems less like a man grappling with a family tragedy than one who’s more awake than others to how quickly those in power can silence those they see as threats, be it with weapons whose names we’re never meant to learn or simply the force of gravity acting on a body falling from a great height.