Wormwood: Unravelling a death, the CIA and doors of the mind
In ‘Wormwood’, director Errol Morris examines the ‘suicide’
of a scientist during Cold War experiments
Over the decades, media have licked around the edges of the disturbing story of how the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency engaged in drug and mind control experiments during the 1950s, an era rife with Cold War secrets and conspiracies.
But we’ve had to wait until now for someone with the guts, panache and appetite to take a big bite deep into the controversy – Oscar-winning director Errol Morris who brings his groundbreaking production Wormwood to Netflix this Friday, with the untold story of a CIA conspiracy involving the haunting death of a family man.
The boundary-breaking Morris, director of The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2004), searches for the truth over six chapters through the story of Eric Olson and his 60-year quest to identify the circumstances of his scientist father’s mysterious death.
“The United States began to do things which put its own democratic institutions in great jeopardy,” says Olson. “And my father was in the centre of that.”
His father, Frank Olson, was a bacteriologist involved with the CIA and its Project MKUltra – the code name given to the agency’s questionable mind-control programme. Many people unwittingly became the subject of cruel experiments designed to develop drugs and procedures that military interrogators could later use to torture and weaken others into confessing their secrets.
In 1953, a time when office meetings were becoming something of an occupational hazard among CIA employees, Frank Olson’s supervisor allegedly spiked his drink with LSD – a drug he’d never taken before. This “surprise” plunged him into depression. Nine days later, he tumbled to the street from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel. As the doomed scientist, American actor Peter Sarsgaard (Experimenter, The Magnificent Seven) gives a virtuoso performance in dramatic re-enactments, nicely punctuated by reality segments of Morris’s legendary interview style as he examines this case from every conceivable angle. Co-stars include Molly Parker (House of Cards), Bob Balaban (Gosford Park), Christian Camargo and Tim Blake Nelson (Syriana).
“I think Errol’s trying to also, maybe consciously or subconsciously, inspire Americans particularly, and people who love democracy, to take action and ask the hard questions,” says Camargo, best known for his appearances in Dexter and House of Cards. “We’re so used to sort of going along with it. We’re not in a proactive kind of culture right now. We’re complacent. It’s been too easy for Americans, for so long, in some ways.”
Expect a few goosebumps, too. Of Morris’s cinematic genius, the late film critic Roger Ebert once said: “I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more… Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”
Morris, 69, says: “Truth is a quest. Truth is a pursuit. It’s not handed to you.” He taps just about every trick in his storyteller’s toolbox to weave his magic here.
“Everything helps me tell the story,” he says. “Here I’ve taken a whole range of techniques – drama, documentary, docudrama, re-enactment, archival material and on and on and on. It is a collage, ultimately.
“In essence, we see the world as a collage. Consciousness is a re-enactment of the world inside our skulls; our attempt to make sense of the world. This is very much a story of trying to make sense of the world, taking the bits and pieces, the scraps and the evidence – and trying to assemble it into a coherent picture of what happened to Eric’s father.”
Ultimately, the US government ruled Olson’s death a suicide – but Morris and others think differently and wonder aloud whether Olson knew too much and whether he was thrown to his death after witnessing secret CIA torture sites in Europe.
Some speculate that Olson, upset by the horrors and the murders that he saw, simply wanted to quit and get away from it all. Resigning, however, was not an option.
As a CIA chief declares in a Wormwood re-enactment: “In this Cold War, the most dangerous weapon is information. You are the men who know the secrets. We are the men who keep the secrets.”
“I think Wormwood is an investigation into truth itself,” says Sarsgaard. “I had the idea that when we first started filming this, I really thought it would be, like, ‘A-ha! Here it is. Here’s the piece of paper that says: Throw him out the window, please.’ But, like, it just doesn’t work like that.”
Even after all these years, Eric Olson’s pain over his father’s death remains palpable. His voice fills with emotion as he projects faded home movies of himself as a blond-haired toddler being hugged on a playground swing by his obviously doting Dad, in the summer sunshine of a bygone era.
“My father Frank Olson was an army scientist. His research group had a relationship with the CIA. They take him to New York Tuesday morning – by early Saturday morning, he’s dead. What was my father doing? What was the CIA doing? What happened there?”
Wormwood will be streamed on Netflix from Friday
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Updated: December 12, 2017 11:05 AM