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In 1953, CIA scientist Frank Olsen fell to his death from a hotel window. Over 20 years later, declassified CIA documents revealed the organisation had been testing LSD on unwilling participants and that Olsen’s death was the result of a bad trip. For many this would be enough on which to base a documentary. However, this information is only the starting point for filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Tabloid) in his fascinating new docudrama series, Wormwood.
There are many holes in the story; why would the CIA place someone emotionally unstable in a high storey hotel room? Why despite crashing through glass did Olsen not have any lacerations to his body? It’s these questions Olsen’s son, Eric, has dedicated his entire life to investigating. Through a series of interviews with Morris, Eric details his method and findings to the audience.
However, with Olsen’s death, definitive answers can never be uncovered. As one interviewer summarises, too much time has passed. Memories grow foggy, those complicit mix their alibis with the truth, files go missing and many involved die. Yet, this doesn’t make Wormwood any less compelling. Not being able to uncover definitive answers gives Eric the chance to talk through a multitude of theories, all of which sound far-fetched but in the context of time (Cold War, Korea, biological warfare, MK Ultra, secret assassinations) are eerily possible. Watching the interviewee narrow this multitude of options down to the most plausible is akin to watching someone perform an intellectual exercise and is always hypnotic.
Meanwhile, as Eric posits theories or puts new information forward, we see dramatised scenes of Frank Olsen’s last ten days alive. With the period décor of Mad Men but the quiet eeriness of the best 70s paranoid thrillers, the scenes are some of the best recreations I’ve seen in a documentary. It’s partly down to how Morris implements them. The audience isn’t supposed to interpret them as being wholly true because there is no way of verifying the information. Instead, we see the same events again and again in each episode, but from varying perspectives and with differing details, leading the viewer to question their reliability while also opening up the idea that each theory has equal possibility of being real.
The cast in the recreations is phenomenal. Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass, Jarhead) as Frank Olsen is a ball of fear, melancholy and paranoia – possibly hallucinating or perhaps scared for his life. Meanwhile, Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou), Scott Shepard (The Young Pope) and Christian Camargo (Penny Dreadful’s Dracula) form a trifecta of creeps playing high-ranking CIA officers connected to Olsen.
Yet, what is arguably most intriguing about Wormwood is Eric Olsen. He is a Harvard graduate and in interviews with Morris comes across as an eloquent, intelligent and humane man. However, his father’s death prevented him from having his own life as he spent sixty years trying to uncover the truth instead of capitalising on his own potential.
Taking its title from Hamlet, Wormwood paints Eric as a tragic hero. Sharing many traits with the Shakespearean hero, Eric Olsen is presented as a man struggling to come to terms with his father’s death. As the interviewee states: “You think that finding an answer to this is gonna restore the path of your own life. But how can you do that if you’ve lost yourself along the way?”. Episode four sees Morris asking Eric Olsen: “What would you say to Hamlet?”. In a moment of clarity, Eric replies “Go back to Wittenberg and keep track of Ophelia”, before recounting with sorrow a story about his ex-fiancee who left him because he was not ‘present’ for her due to his obsession with uncovering the truth.
While Morris could have toned down his use of archival footage and editing techniques (split-screens, amplifying audio) or trimmed episodes to be tighter, one cannot deny the documentary is fascinating. Whether it be the macro in highlighting shady CIA activity or the micro in one man’s obsession destroying his life, Wormwood as a viewing experience should not be missed.