Errol Morris’ Wormwood Is a Cold War Amorality Play

The brilliant six-part Netflix miniseries (out Dec. 15) starts with a mysterious death and grows to involve the entire national-security complex.

Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson in Wormwood. (Courtesy of SFFILM Wormwood)

There was a time when the words “government drug-testing program” meant experimenting with LSD as a potential truth serum rather than making sure ex-cons weren’t violating their parole.

In Errol Morris’ enormous and magnificent Wormwood, the documentarian — the latest venerable filmmaker to join Netflix as it reshapes the cinematic landscape — takes on a metastatic cover-up that the CIA had dutifully papered over for decades. And it all began with a mild-mannered government bacteriologist named Frank Olson, who allegedly committed suicide in November 1953 by jumping out of an upper-story window in his Manhattan hotel. Needless to say, things spiraled from there into a Cold War amorality tale touching on mind-control experiments, germ warfare, Fidel Castro, and the Korean War, and continued unspooling well into the 21st century.

Through ample footage from the period — Olson, by happy coincidence, was an avid home moviemaker — mixed with dramatic reconstructions, present-day interviews of his subjects, and archival material from the 1970s and beyond, Morris gradually builds a case that this midcentury footnote could be read as an indictment of the seemingly eternal nature of what’s frequently referred to nowadays as the Deep State. Whatever conspiracy may or may not have happened in the mid-1950s, the subsequent cover-up demonstrated the government’s intense willingness to lie, then lie about the lies.

But two points are indisputably true: Olson’s colleagues dosed him with LSD for indeterminate reasons, and he died not long after. Everything else is murky. So what has to happen for a government that is nominally answerable to its citizens to become accountable only to itself? Does it periodically require a test of its own strength in this regard?

The answers remain opaque. Ostensibly, the proponents of the nascent national-security complex instinctively understood they needed to do whatever they could to protect it. This is territory Thomas Pynchon might cover, but the tone is far different from any hyper-cerebral, Pynchonesque farce. If anything, Wormwood is like the documentary equivalent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, that so-called nonfiction novel.

Olson (played by Peter Sarsgaard in the dramatizations) might have been a paranoiac or he might have been too weak to “handle his drugs.” But by the mid-1970s, his then-adult son Eric — age 9 when his father disappeared — learns enough details to wrest a peculiar public apology out of the Ford administration, with the understanding that that would be the end of the matter.

It wasn’t, and the ultimate unknowability of what transpired in that hotel room 64 years ago stalks Wormwood’s protagonists and antagonists alike. The film is, at bottom, an epistemological inquiry into how shadows and whispers become historical facts. Eric Olson, who seems not to question his ability as a lowly grad student to obtain a meeting with the director of the CIA, is a compelling character, an obsessive who goes so far as to have his father disinterred and re-autopsied in the 1990s. He marvels at the presence of “burn bowls,” ritual instruments the agency uses for the destruction of unfavorable information.

Further, just as Donald Trump’s associations with flamboyant trickster Roger Stone and, earlier, the ruthless attorney Roy Cohn, connect the current president to Richard Nixon and to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the people who show up in Wormwood are enough to make a person blanch. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are here, along with crusading journalist Seymour Hersh. Bob Balaban, at his creepy-crawliest, plays a CIA allergist named Harold Abramson, while Christian Carmargo plays CIA deputy Robert Lashbrook, perhaps the man we should trust the least. The entire postwar period starts to feel like a soap opera with Langley as some never-seen bedroom.

On the same day as when Americans learned that the full tranche of documents pertaining to the JFK assassination weren’t going to be released after all, I sat down with Morris at his hotel while he was in San Francisco for a screening of Wormwood at the Vogue Theater. (The miniseries was re-cut for a feature release, making it eligible for an Academy Award.) He expressed both doubt and uncertainty that the CIA conspired to kill Frank Olson.

“The effort to cover something up indicates knowledge of wrongdoing, and it’s powerful evidence of a crime,” Morris said. “Conspiracy, again, is something very different altogether. Did the CIA conspire to kill Frank Olson? It’s something that needs qualification, explanation. But did they try to cover up what had happened?”

Clearly, they did, and that’s what lends credibility to the work of conspiracy hunters like Eric Olson. Bureaucratic inertia seems to be the irresistible force in this case, and any individual player is merely caught in the spokes. Such a scenario is satisfying in that it handily dispatches the ravings of people like Alex Jones, who see false flags everywhere they look. But by extracting the proverbial shadowy meetings in underground lairs from the equation, we’re left with a model of postwar history that, essentially, consists of bumbling, self-impressed fools covering their asses again and again, forever. When the truth does come out, it’s only because people get sloppy as the years go by. They forget to be vigilant about putting their naked self-interest above all else.

“I find that thought truly terrifying, much more so than the idea that there’s some kind of infernal cabal,” Morris said, “because then, it just seems totally out of control.”

He has every reason to trust his gut on this point, because in a 2003 documentary (The Fog of War) former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told Morris that only one thing kept the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from nuking each other at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis: luck.

“I would argue in part because of it, the world was saved. And would I attribute it to the actions of the Kennedys or the actions of Khrushchev and his commanders? I would say the latter,” he said. “The world is really a crazy place, and one just keeps hoping that there are some rational elements out there.”

In a sense, Morris’ film is about the beginnings of the Cold War — specifically, about the national-security state becoming unstoppably self-perpetuating in the way we think of Skynet from Terminator becoming self-aware. Both pertain to the threat of nuclear annihilation. The year 1953 was remarkable: It saw the official end of the Korean War, the execution of the Rosenbergs, and the death of Josef Stalin. It also marked the end of any possibility of peaceful coexistence with the Soviets, and the beginning of what Morris calls “our descent into a hapless paranoia.”

It’s impossible not to see this historical moment foreshadowing our own, in which the demented tweets of a president rattling sabers at North Korea can shape reality to a greater extent than any previous propagandist dreamed. But what’s most incredible, then, about Wormwood, is its aesthetics, from the dramatic re-creations to the loving home movies Frank Olson shot of his family idyll.

When Morris interviewed Eric Olson, the resulting footage was spliced together from 10 different cameras. The anti-Orwellian documentarian trained more screens on his subject than a surveillance state would on an unperson, but the end product of this compulsion to capture the truth in all its fullness is beautiful. Morris sold Netflix on the idea for Wormwood as an “everything bagel,” and he wove its component parts together so harmoniously that it hides the near-mania of the man behind the camera who wants to scream, “How do we even know what we can know anymore?” Aesthetic decisions double as rigorous ethical scruples. This is a cinematic project trained on the genesis of the rot at the heart of the American empire, and released just as that rot has finally spread everywhere, to everything.

Wormwood
Available Friday, Dec. 15, on Netflix.

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