America loves watching true crime documentaries. There are several television channels dedicated to the subject, dozens of podcasts, and hundreds of movies. Most of them tell the story of a violent crime, then unravel its mysteries. There are variations on the theme—authorities catch a killer or don’t, the wrong person is accused, or the bad guy gets away—but they all follow a similar pattern.
Then there’s the work of director Errol Morris. He wants the audience to understand not just the crime, but the way the crime affected everyone around it, and what the story people tell about the crime says about them.
Wormwood is his new documentary miniseries on Netflix that—on its surface—is about LSD, the CIA, and the clandestine MKUltra project. From the early 1950s until 1973, the CIA and the Pentagon used torture, hypnosis, and drugs like LSD to attempt to control the human mind. It didn’t work, and the project killed Frank Olson.
Olson was a government chemist who worked on the project in its early days and, in 1953, fell to his death from the window of a New York City hotel room. The police ruled the death a suicide, but his son Eric never believed it.
A Congressional investigation in 1975 revealed that just days before his death, Olson had spent a weekend with CIA agents and other scientists in a secluded cabin. While there, they dosed him with LSD without his knowledge or consent. After his trip at the cabin in the woods, Olson had a nervous breakdown. He acted strangely and claimed he wanted to change the course of his life. Just nine days after his LSD trip, he was dead.
The revelation was so explosive that President Gerald Ford invited Olson’s family to the White House for an official apology. Both the CIA and the president apologized for the death, but refused to say that Olson had been outright murdered. That never sat right with Eric, who spent his life trying to figure out if the CIA had actually killed his father instead of just dosing him with acid.
The quixotic quest to find the truth made him the man he is today. He’s an admittedly bitter man who had exhumed his father’s corpse for a new autopsy on the body. Eric has obsessed over the truth for so long that his father’s death consumed any chance he had to form his own identity or legacy. He never got around to living his own life.
Wormwood is laser focused on Olson’s death and Eric’s quest and largely ignores the wider horror of Project MKUltra. In a normal true crime documentary, the creators would give over several hours to describing the nightmarish Project Artichoke and Operation Midnight Climax, where brothel goers were dosed with LSD without their knowledge. MKUltra had a huge cultural and political impact, but that’s not Wormwood’s concern.
It's Morris' focus on Eric’s obsession with truth rather than the procedural details of a true crime documentary that makes Wormwood transcend the genre. It revisits themes from his 1988 masterpiece The Thin Blue Line in that both films use a real death and elaborate reenactments not only to reconstruct disputed versions of the past, but to examine the slippery methods with which truth itself is constructed.
Morris is interested in the muddy places between truth and fiction. He wants to know the official story, but also how that official story affected the people involved. He wants the raw emotions of his subjects and to know how those emotions color the truth.
His documentaries use primary sources and extensive interviews to piece together something approaching the truth, but his reenactments help the the audience see how absurd or strange that official narrative is. In the first episode, a reenactment shows a family friend comforting Eric’s mother paired with the memos that a family friend wrote about the interaction. The military had ordered the man to “handle” the grieving widow and Morris shows the audience those reports. The disconnect between the memos and the reenactment images of a family friend kindly comforting a grieving widow highlight the disconnect between the official story and Eric’s memories of the moment.
A true crime documentary like Making a Murderer might tell you a story about a crime, but it never demands anything more than than the audience’s brief attention. Morris wants more. A mysterious suicide is a good subject for a documentary, especially one that's linked to a covert CIA program involving mind control experiments and psychedelic drugs.
Wormwood manages to tell that story, but its bigger accomplishment is forcing the audience to feel empathy for the victims of that project. Morris also wants the audience to consider the veracity of his subject’s accounts and he knows that people's personalities are always more interesting than the stories they’re involved in.
Wormwood knows that the mystery of Olson’s death is only the entry point for a much more interesting story about how that death affected the victim’s family. The central figure of the show is not Olson, but his son Eric—a man who has spent his life searching for answers behind his father’s supposed suicide.
Morris knows that Olson’s quest is the more interesting story and that shift in focus is the ultimate reason Wormwood is better than every other bit of "murder porn" on TV. Also, unlike other true crime shows, Wormwood has no neat and tidy ending. There’s no grand conclusion, no moment of grand revelation, and no catharsis. Like real life, it’s messy.
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