Errol Morris’ most recent documentary, Wormwood, highlights an unfamiliar tale of American history. The “Untold True Story of The CIA” shows us the darker side of government, and the incendiary documentarian, behind works such as Thin Blue Line, spins the story perfectly.
Wormwood spotlights the mysterious suicide of Army Scientist Frank Olson in 1953 and the effects of that case on the Olson family. This brilliant six-part documentary features Eric Olson, the son of Frank Olson, as the main interviewee. Morris is famous for his investigative interview style and he expertly tells the story of CIA involvement in Olson’s death.
Olson was a known participant of the MKUltra project that explored biological weapons to be used against the Soviet Union if a war against the communist state were to erupt in the early 1950s. The chemical most interesting to the American government was lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD or acid. MKUltra was first brought to the public eye in 1975 and its existence was confirmed ten years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Morris renews the tale of Olson’s death and reasserts Olson’s involuntary participation in the testing of LSD at Deep Creek Lake. He was unknowingly administered LSD so that fellow Army scientists could test its worth as a truth serum. This is where the story gets foggy. The CIA has given a plotline of the next few weeks leading up to Olson’s apparent suicide, but the Olson family does not quite buy it. Eric Olson, in particular, is convinced and has been able to convince many others that his father’s death is that of a homicide, not a suicide. He ponders how only he could be questioning the death of his father, and takes much of the research into his own hands.
While mimicking one of Olson’s favorite coping methods, Morris collages many interviews with Olson, detailing his well-thought view of the story. Three perspectives on the tragedy soon emerge: Frank Olson’s death could simply be the sad effect of a man under very intense pressure. Frank Olson’s death could be a suicide aided by the illegal administration of LSD by the CIA, and finally, Frank Olson’s death could be a CIA cover up of a much bigger problem. The most compelling information given leans forever towards the latter.
Wormwood focuses on a dimly lit moment of American history, and like the 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, strains the relationship between the people and the bodies that govern them. Errol Morris expertly pieces together the lives of those hurt by the dishonesty of the CIA and is able to provide a compelling story for the viewer. Morris also touches on the hard truth that Eric Olson had to face when he realized knowing exactly what happened to his father may not be what he had originally pursued. Olson has devoted his life to uncovering the event that haunted his childhood, but finally decides that closure in this point of his life would be somewhat of a missed opportunity. Olson instead believes his father’s story should be told not for his own sake, but for the sake of transparency. He argues that the people of the United States have a right to know just what happened to his father and just what his death may have been covering up
Wormwood has been crushing ratings recently, achieving a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 84% on Metacritic and 7.1/10 on IMDb. This Morris masterpiece is a must see for any avid documentary fan and is currently available on Netflix.