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.