In Wormwood, Errol Morris Smelled a Cold War Conspiracy

The filmmaker’s inventive Netflix miniseries reopened a CIA scientist’s sketchy 1953 suicide, but left big questions unanswered.
  • Errol Morris imagines CIA scientist Frank Olson’s last days, with help from Peter Sarsgaard. (Netflix)
    Errol Morris imagines CIA scientist Frank Olson’s last days, with help from Peter Sarsgaard. (Netflix)
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    In Wormwood, an artful hybrid of documentary and docudrama from Errol Morris, Oscar-winning director of Fog Of War and The Thin Blue Line, we revisit the case of a scientist whose suspicious death in 1953 while doing Cold War spywork was covered up, not once but twice, by the U.S. government.

    Morris must have a hundred of these ideas in a drawer. Frank Olson falls from a 10th-story room at New York’s Statler Hotel. Because he was doing top-secret biowarfare research, the CIA invents a story to tell the press and Frank’s widow Alice. No one is told the truth for 20 years. And when “the truth” is finally told, it also turns out to be fiction, concocted by a White House aide named Dick Cheney.

    I suppose you could make that into an hour of First Person, the stylized talking-heads show Morris did for Bravo and IFC in the early 2000s. But six episodes, about a person no one knows and an era we’d rather forget? Who does that? Netflix, that’s who.

    The facts of the case are straightforward. Frank Olson, by all accounts a brilliant scientist, leaves his family one day in ’53 and never comes back. Alice Olson is told that her husband died in an “accident,” having either “jumped” or “fallen” out of the hotel window. Because people trusted their government, and the Commies were plotting our annihilation, Alice tells her children to accept the official explanation.

    This much we know: Frank Olsen either jumped or fell from a 10th story hotel window. (Netflix)

    Her 9-year-old, Eric, can’t do that. “If he jumped out the window, how is that an accident?” he tells Morris in Wormwood. “On the other hand, what does it mean to say you fell out of a hotel room window? What does that even mean?” For the next 22 years Eric will turn these conflicting accounts over and over in his tortured mind.

    Then in 1975, during a congressional probe into abuses of power at the CIA, a new account of what happened to Frank Olson surfaces. He was actually on a weekend retreat with other scientists when someone slipped LSD in his cocktail. Unbeknownst to him, there was a CIA experiment on the effects of hallucinogens and Frank was being used as a test subject. But then it went horribly wrong, and Frank had leaped from a hotel room window.

    The family was stunned by this revelation. They held a press conference demanding more details from the government. And that’s where two aides to President Ford — Donald Rumsfeld and the aforementioned Cheney — got involved. National security was invoked. And a plan was concocted to keep the Olsons from digging deeper.

    The president met the Olsons in the Oval Office and in their conversation, apologized on behalf of the government, and offered them a cash settlement for their loss. As Cheney explained in a memo obtained by Eric Olson, had the family not settled they could have sued. Then they might have gained access to “highly classified national security” documents, and learned what really happened to Frank Olson. But they took the settlement.

    Using his trademark re-enactment style, and the considerable talent of Peter Sarsgaard, Morris replays Frank Olson’s last days in various alternative scenarios. Each scenario plays out compellingly, even convincingly.

    Watching the re-enactments, I was reminded of what Jon Shenk wrote in a retrospective on The Thin Blue Line. “The details in Morris’s now-famous re-creations of the murder scene change depending on who is telling the story. … It’s only when all of these points-of-view are considered together that a greater truth emerges.” 

    Eric Olsen, Frank Olsen's son, is interviewed in Errol Morris's <i>Wormwood</i>. (Netflix)

    Something like that is going on in Wormwood as well. Eric Olson is a Harvard-educated psychologist, and Errol Morris (whom we see here at times, interviewing Olson in the old family home) is an accomplished gumshoe. Yet it’s clear that neither man, nor likely anyone else, will know exactly what fate overtook Frank Olson inside a spy agency more than 60 years ago. 

    Wormwood is a compelling meditation on the moral contradictions of national security. Less compellingly, it attempts a revisionist Cold War history lesson for unwoke citizens.

    At times Morris is angling for a larger truth about the long-lasting effects of official lies and the generational erosion of public trust. The film quotes Revelation 8:11 in which the prophet sees a star fall to earth, “and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” 

    That’s a little arch, I think. If there’s a problem with Wormwood, it’s the light regard given to the genuinely apocalyptic threat of nuclear war that we faced in 1953. It’s a threat that Frank Olson and his fellow scientists had been grappling with since the early stages of the Manhattan Project. 

    Yes, the CIA was exploring the use of biological weapons during the Cold War, which I think we can all agree was very bad. But the possession of atomic secrets by the Soviets — who under Lenin and Stalin had exterminated millions of their own subjects — was surely much worse. Morris presents no evidence that Frank was indifferent to this moral calculus, or that he wasn’t wise to what he was getting into. He likely pondered what the CIA might do to him if he got cold feet.

    And even though Frank Olson was a man of science, not the arts, I’d like to think he was familiar with the Crito, which takes in an Athens jail the night before Socrates is scheduled for execution. The old philosopher is visited by friends who want to help him escape, but he rejects their offer, telling them of a dream he had where the Laws of Athens appear in bodily form and advise him to accept his fate. “Put not life nor children nor anything else ahead of what is just,” the Laws declare, “so that when you come to the Place of the Dead you may have all this to say in your defense.”

    Hey, my guess is as good as yours.

    Previously on The Overlooked, we marked the end of the Cold War — that existential threat to humanity that no one born after 1980 even remembers, which is a blessing, actually — with FX’s what-if drama The Americans and Amazon’s what-the-hell satire Comrade Detective. And I sang the praises of Manhattan, the desert drama about the scientists who ended World War II.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Errol Morris, Netflix, Documentaries