I spent a good portion of New Year’s Day binge watching this haunting Netflix docudrama. Directed by Errol Morris of “Thin Blue Line” and “Fog of War” fame, “Wormwood” is a unique and truly frightening journey into post-WWII America in which maniacs at the CIA were busy developing what would eventually become MKUltra. What’s a little LSD between friends, right?
When Army scientist, Frank Olson, mysteriously flew out of his window at NY’s Statler Hotel in November of 1953, his death presented his young son, Eric, with a Quixotic life’s quest: to find out what really happened to his father.
The episodes cut between chilling and tragic interviews with Eric, and exceptionally atmospheric dramatic scenes as imagined by Morris. Peter Sarsgaard’s Frank Olson is a perfectly crafted cypher, challenging us to wonder if ANYONE actually knew this man, let alone his family. Also turning in wondrous performances are Tim Blake Nelson, Molly Parker, a totally sinister Jimmi Simpson and the much beloved Bob Balaban.
The documentary scenes are filled with heartache and the kind of despair that allows us to glimpse beyond a stranger’s event horizon to the black hole that has begun to devour them. If the story being told wasn’t so monumentally important, I doubt I could have finished watching.
Perhaps one of the most tantalizing scenes in the series was an interview between Errol Morris and American journalist legend, Seymour Hersh.
No longer the swaggering young hero who exposed the My Lai Massacre and nabbed the 1970 Pulitzer, Hersh has morphed into the Fourth Estate’s Jabba the Hut, not in size but in attitude. Puffed-up with comfort and hubris, Hersh dismissively stares down Morris and then smugly assures him that he knows exactly what happened to Frank Olson in 1953. Of course he can’t spill the beans because that would allegedly jeopardize his source. Hersh definitely believed that he was totally owning Morris, but he foolishly forgot that the cameras trained on him belonged solely to the filmmaker. Oops, Seymour! Your callous pomposity is now forever preserved in an age when we’ve come to treat journalists like snakes that we can’t immediately identify as being venomous.
If you’re turned on by riveting documentaries, moody murder mysteries, great performances, the Cold War, CIA skullduggery, MKUltra, and genuine human pathos – the kind that makes you question pretty much everything – then I highly recommend “Wormwood.”
It’s a slow burn, but once the fire finally catches, you simply can’t look away. And if you’re wondering about the title, check Revelation 8 verse 10.