Wormwood. Available now on Netflix.
Nothing bores me more than weepy declarations of the end of American innocence. If there ever was such a moment, it came hundreds of years ago when the first slave ship arrived, the first Indian was shot, or maybe when the first witch was hanged.
But there's no denying that much of the country was pretty stunned to learn in 1975 that a CIA employee named Frank Olson jumped out a 10th-floor hotel window after being secretly dosed with LSD by his own boss as part of a U.S. government mind-control experiment. Toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran at least had some sense of purpose, however foul; Olson's death sounded more like a tawdry, callous frat prank, a profound and pointless repudiation of the very concept of morality.
Five decades later, investigative filmmaker Errol Morris' Wormwood is trying to convince us that it was something even worse, the ruthless murder of a political dissident with his six-part documentary Wormwood, a razzle-dazzle exercise in multimedia virtuosity that substitutes sinister showmanship for facts and silly sophistry for deductive logic. American innocence may have been lost a long time ago, but the casual acceptance of Wormwood's empty claims certainly suggests that the tides of American citizens' cynicism about their government are teaching new high points.
"Wormwood" in the Bible refers literally to poison and metaphorically to bitter truth, and both usages underlie the documentary. It recounts the quest of Eric Olson, Frank's son, to prove his father was not just collateral damage in a CIA experiment in behavioral control experiment but the victim of a government execution.
Frank Olson, a bacteriologist, began working during World War II as a civilian contractor for a U.S. Army biological warfare lab and then graduated to a Frankenstein-ish CIA unit dedicated to better covert living through chemistry. It provided poisons for CIA assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and leftist Congolese leader Patrice Lumemba and dabbled in the use of LSD and other hallucinogens as two-way weapons that might be used either to unmask Soviet moles in the West or create American moles behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1953, Olson and several CIA colleagues attended a retreat at a rural Maryland hunting lodge to discuss their work with psychotropic drugs. The meeting turned out to be more hands-on than anybody expected; Sidney Gottlieb, who ran the drug program, spiked the drinks of nearly all the participants with LSD. The idea was to see how they'd react to the drug in a non-clinical situation. The result was the spook version of a 1960s college dorm party; a lot of giggling and incoherent philosophical debates.
Olson, however, had the mother of all bad trips. Within a couple of days, convinced he had made a fool of himself at the retreat, he showed up at his supervisor's office to say he wanted to quit or be fired. As his condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours, Olson's bosses decided he needed psychiatric help. They sent him to New York to see a doctor named Harold Abramson, who was interested in psychiatry but had no formal training. (By trade, he was an immunologist.) But he had been a CIA contractor, had a security clearance, and, perhaps most importantly, had worked with the agency's LSD project.
Olson, however, grew even more paranoid. He was convinced the CIA was drugging him further. He snuck out of a Broadway show to avoid the armed men he was certain were waiting outside to grab him and spent a night wandering the streets, throwing away his identification and money, on what he imagined were CIA orders. The next night he went flying out his hotel room window. Olson's family was told only that he had jumped or fallen, not about the LSD dosing. And for the next 22 years, that was that.
But when government and media investigations into CIA domestic spying began in 1975, they soon came across a document listing what the agency called the "family jewels," secret operations that were embarrassing and possibly illegal. Olson's death was among them. For the first time, his family learned what was really behind his leap from the hotel window.
Or did it? Though Frank's son Eric, along with the rest of the family, signed a $750,000 settlement with the CIA and visited the White House to accept a personal apology from President Ford, he remained unconvinced by the CIA account. Eric even had his father's body exhumed and a new autopsy performed. Over the years, he's filed several lawsuits (all dismissed), convinced a cold-case unit of the New York DA's office to launch a new investigation of the case (after four years with results, it closed), and hectored investigative reporters, including Seymour Hersh and Morris, to pursue it.
Eric's obsession is entirely understandable, not only because his father's death, one way or another, was caused by a lawless government agency that treated its own employees as little better than livestock, but because there are some dangling threads in the case.
The biggest is the result of the body's exhumation. It showed no sign of the lacerations that might be expected on somebody who jumped through a closed window, as Frank Olson is alleged to have done. And it had a head wound that two of the three forensic pathologists who participated in the examination said could only have been inflicted before hitting the ground—suggesting the possibility that Olson could have been knocked unconscious by assailants his hotel room, then tossed out the window—by malign coincidence, exactly the technique recommended in a 1953 CIA assassination manual that's come to light in recent years.
Those loose ends morph into smoking guns in the bombastic alchemy of Wormwood. Morris, who in previous films has taken on police homicides (The Thin Blue Line) and the criminal deceptiveness of the intellectual authors of the Vietnam war (The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara), pulls out all the stops this time.
Photos, Olson home movies and TV newscasts, disturbing flim clips splash across a screen that often as not is split—two, three, nine times. They alternate with repetitive and disturbing flim clips of a lonely figure sitting (or sinking?) in a desolate body of water, perhaps the poisonous waters unleased by the malefic star Wormwood prophesied in the Book of Revelations. Morris' interviews with Eric Olson, shot under harsh light in a featureless office, look like they took place in the waiting room of Hell. The soundtrack is pockmarked with weird echoes and screechy sounds effects.
All this is a frame for the main narrative device of Wormwood, its recreations. Staged representations of events in a documentary were an innovation when Morris introduced them in The Thin Blue Line, but they've become a standard tool for documentarians in the years since.
Wormwood, however, suggests that the early industry skepticism about recreations may have been on target. These recreations are less dramatic aids to paper over a lack of documentary footage than a movie of their own, with a screenplay that goes well beyond established facts and a full cast (including Molly Parker of Deadwood and Peter Sarsgaard of The Killing) that interprets characters rather than representing them. Bob Balaban is unnvervingly creepy as the faux CIA shrink Harold Abramson, but it's hard to believe that such an obviously diabolical personality could attracted patients for a lucrative private practice, as the real-life Abramson did.
And in elevating Eric Olson's largely unsupported suspicions into objective fact in the extensive recreations, Morris leaves the realm of documentary for fictional drama. For instance, the CIA colleague sharing Frank Olson's room on the night he died was a slight, mild-mannered chemist who absolutely nobody believes could have picked Olson up and hurled him through a window. So Morris simply introduces two CIA musclemen who slip up to the room in the middle of the night, do the deed, and then depart, undetected.
Is that plausible? Perhaps. Is it true? There's not even a shred of evidence for that; nobody reported any such men at all, much less witnessed them entering Olson's room.
More fundamentally, the thesis that drives Wormwood—that the CIA's story about dosing Olson with LSD was a red herring to cover up the fact that the agency murdered him to keep him from disclosing its work with drugs—is absurd.
It rests entirely on the unproven (to put it mildly) assertion that Frank Olson, after a decade of working on biowarfare projects, suddenly threatened to blow the whistle on them because he realized the CIA was using hallucinogens during interrogations of prisoners. That would certainly appall many people. But Olson's major project in his biowarfare work was converting anthrax germs to an aerosol form. Did he really the goal was a new and improved deodorant? Was he really shocked, shocked to learn that Fort Detrick was all about churning out weapons to be used in the Cold War?
Beyond that, if the LSD story was devised as a red herring, it must have been in consultation with Rube Goldberg. Olson's death attracted little attention at the time and quickly became a closed book. Would it really have made any sense for the CIA to fabricate a lot of documents about a fictional LSD dose, bury them in its archives, then hand over to outside investigators two decades later? The leak of the LSD story didn't distract anybody from Olson's death; quite the reverse, it called attention.
Wormwood, ultimately, is a wildly overblown embarrassment to Morris' reputation. Yet, oddly, he's not the journalist who takes the biggest hit. That would surely be Hersh, who in an interview that caps Wormwood, blandly declares that Olson was murdered and he knows why, "but I can't tell you." Because, Hersh says, it would get his source in trouble. As Time magazine editor Henry Grunwald once said, "Journalism can never be silent: That is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault." Time to shut up, Sy.