Between Truman Capote’s 1965 work “In Cold Blood” and Netflix’s original “Making a Murderer,” there is something about true crime that has long tantalized the American psyche. Netflix’s latest, the Errol Morris-directed “Wormwood,” counts on this fascination to reel in audiences with its chilling conspiracy before shifting to explore the effects of distrust in American politics.
“Wormwood” combines new interviews, archival footage of old trials surrounding the mysterious death of Frank Olson and a dramatized retelling of the peculiar events leading to his death, featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Olson. As a result, the divide between fact and fiction becomes increasingly indiscernible over the course of the show, echoing the dissolution of that same divide in the lives of the Olson family.
In 1953, Frank Olson, a scientist and CIA employee, was taken to New York City for psychiatric treatment shortly after being drugged with LSD by his CIA colleagues. A week and a half after his arrival, Olson was dead. His family was initially told that he either fell or jumped from his hotel window.
More than 20 years later, the Washington Post would reveal that the CIA used LSD in its testing on American citizens — an experiment that led to at least one subject’s suicide. The Olson family realized the unnamed individual had to be Frank Olson, giving way to speculation and intense investigation.
Eric Olson, Frank’s son, is haunted by his father’s death to this day. He has brought multiple suits against the U.S. government and has relentlessly pursued the truth of what happened in his father’s hotel room that fateful night with the use of his own funds and time. Attorney David Rudovsky notes in an interview that Eric Olson’s determination to discover the truth caused him to sacrifice what could have been a promising career in psychology.
In this sense, “Wormwood” is a fevered examination of the death of an individual suffering from severe mental paranoia. While much of Frank Olson’s paranoid state was written off as side effects of LSD, the show leads us to believe that there was some sinister reality at work. Thus this disjointed, unsettling presentation of purpose is read as an intentional stylistic choice.
The form of this show does not follow that of a conventional documentary. In addition to the considerable number of dramatized scenes, the interviews and archival footage are at times presented in an off-kilter, distorted manner. Notably, the audio from interviews is often layered on top of itself, creating eerie moments where six identical voices speak simultaneously. At other points, the same image is presented side by side, with one of the images inverted.
Above all, the most striking, and frustrating, feature of “Wormwood” is its lack of victory or resolution. After the conclusion of the show, the viewer is left with the impression that nothing has changed — the same corrupt secrecy still abounds.
For instance, the show chooses to explicitly mention Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who were deputy chief of staff and chief of staff, respectively, when the Olson family brought its first suit against the government in 1975. Positioning them as shady figures then serves to establish this story as something that is both recognizable and relevant now.
Even still, one of the show’s most frustrating components is reporter Seymour Hersh’s refusal to disclose all of his knowledge regarding the events surrounding Olson’s death. Regardless, interviews with Hersh raise even more chilling possibilities of the government’s involvement with biological warfare — an implicit suggestion that the dissident ideas held by Olson, which may have made him a target, would similarly put people at risk today.
Ultimately, as Perry Como’s “No Other Love” is crooned over the credits, the instructions to “set me free, free from doubt and free from longing” coupled with the lighthearted tone of the song seem almost taunting. “Wormwood” leaves a bitter taste, and perhaps, as Eric Olson (and even Frank himself) might argue, that’s the point.
“Wormwood” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].