This post contains mild spoilers.
--Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.
On a night in 1953, Frank Olsen took a plunge from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel room. Olsen was a scientist working for the United States government, and his death was deemed a suicide.
That’s the official report, anyway.
For the next 240 or so minutes, Errol Morris’ documentary series for Netflix forcibly takes us by the back of the head and plunges us into a dark, twisting rabbit hole where each turn seems to take us further and further from any kind of exit. What exactly happened that evening in 1953? What was Frank Olsen really doing for the U.S.? And who, exactly, is telling the truth?
Wormwood does something fairly ambitious for a documentary, in that half of it’s length is devoted to scripted reenactments (though how much in them actually happened is up to speculation), with professional actors such as Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker playing the fictional versions of Frank and Alice Olsen. These reenactments do serve a purpose to the overall theme and thesis of the film, though that purpose becomes muddled about halfway through due to a lack of pace.
The purely visual elements of the reenactments are impeccable. The images are stark, still, and often convey a sense of claustrophobia or paranoia. In other words, it does what it sets out to do. However, what’s lacking within them is pacing and interesting blocking. So much of the reenactments feel like assembly cut versions of scenes, where the characters stand or sit in a space for long periods of time before any sort of dialogue begins. To cite an example, there is a full, uncut 90-second master shot in which we watch someone shake up a martini. It serves no overall purpose to the story going forward, and isn’t really visually interesting in any way. These painfully slow paced sequences, stacked on top of each other, kill the overall pace of the doc and become something of a nuisance. I found myself dreading the inevitable return to the reenactments, even though the performances were solid and the imagery within them was downright eerie. Morris is a better documentarian than a director of fiction, and the fictional scenes within Wormwood show it.
Even with the bad pacing, the back and forth between the documentary bits and the fictional bits wouldn’t seem like as much of a chore if the documentary was less than spectacular. But this is an Errol Morris doc, and man oh man is it gripping.
If you’re going to make the type of documentary that Errol Morris does, you have to have good interviews. That’s something that Morris has perfected in the decades that he’s been active. He knows exactly the right question to ask that evokes a fascinating response, and follows up extremely well.
Our “main character” so to speak is Eric Olsen, Frank’s son, who was 9 when his father died. With some lovely juxtaposition editing, Morris and editor Steven Hathaway draw allusions to Hamlet, another son who felt the pull to avenge his father. Eric is naturally quite charismatic, and the doc allows him to tell stories for long periods of time about his experiences, really beginning in 1975, when he’s brought to the White House with the rest of the Olsen family.
You see, according to the Ford administration, Frank Olsen was one of the first test cases of the MKUltra program, and committed suicide because of a bad LSD trip.
This is the simplest explanation of Frank Olsen’s death given in the series.
Using interviews and archival footage, the documentary breezes along, which is occasionally to its detriment. Nary a real discussion on the MKUltra program is had, nor is it really illustrated what Frank Olsen did career-wise for the U.S. government, which makes some of the early sequences a bit confusing as we bounce from one subject to the next. It’s a minor gripe, but cutting out a few of the reenactments to make room for more information would’ve been a welcome change.
As the possible scenarios and explanations for Frank’s death get crazier and crazier, the documentary’s focus becomes more and more grounded on Eric. He’s an undeniably smart individual, quite possibly a genius, who has given up everything in his life to find out the truth of what happened to a man he probably barely remembers. His story is one of tragedy and obsession, and one cannot fathom the feeling of helplessness created when you seem to be a singular voice shouting into a sound-dampening void. With every shocking reveal and crazy story, the meaning of Hamlet’s line and the title of the story becomes clear. For wormwood is exceptionally bitter, and so too is our journey. All the research and arguing and analysis will never stop the fact that Frank Olsen died on a night in 1953 and never got to grow old with his wife or watch his children become adults. Each scenario provides the same outcome: an unnecessary death and the end of two lives; a father and a son’s. Maybe we’ll never know the “what” and the “why” of the story, and maybe we aren’t supposed to. The truth may never fully come out.
And to Eric Olsen, that outcome is the bitterest of all.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.