On November 28, 1953, Frank Olson, a 43-year-old bacteriologist, either jumped, fell, or was pushed out of a window to his death from the 13th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. Jumped, fell, pushed: The verb depends on your perspective. Ten days earlier, Olson, who worked on biological warfare for the CIA, had been covertly drugged with LSD at a meeting with higher-ups, resulting in a subsequent nervous breakdown, bouts of paranoia, and, depending on which version of this story you believe, an implicit death sentence. In one version of this story, Olson’s breakdown caused him to climb out of his hotel window and jump to his death. The earliest reports suggest the incident was an outright suicide. In another version, Olson’s death was self-inflicted, but perhaps not so intentional: He “fell.” The police reports use the words “jumped or fell,” which feels like a world of a difference.
But in another retelling, based on newer evidence, neither term applies: Frank Olson was murdered. And in the most extreme version of this story, his death is but one in a sprawling history of murders sanctioned by the CIA, a method so programmatic it appears in CIA manuals as a way of tying up loose ends. This version has less to do with LSD or the conspiracy-friendly MK Ultra experiments that have long been associated with it and much more to do with the Korean War, the things Olson knew, and the things the government didn’t want the public to know. Sound far-fetched? Maybe so—but not to Frank’s son, Eric, who is still seeking out answers, living out a lifelong obsession with the circumstances surrounding his father’s death more than 60 years ago. And not if you’ve seen Wormwood, Errol Morris’s six-part Netflix documentary about Eric and the histories of deceit he and his family have untangled so far.
Just as he did in his canonical true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988), Morris morphs a story about an obsessive search for truth into a stylized, experimental mix of interviews, fictionalized reimaginings (I hesitate to say “reenactments” when so little of what happened is known enough to be reenacted), and lots and lots of data. We get split-screens that multiply before our eyes like cells dividing and images that replicate and revise themselves on-screen in endless complicating reiterations of each other. We get dense setups using up to 10 cameras at a time, resulting in interviews stitched together in Morris’s singularly paranoid style, each new cut or image seemingly responding to a new angle or fresh rhetorical turn in the story.
There are documents, too, of course, and archival footage of the Olson family (most pointedly, of Eric and Frank) and Senate hearings, television interviews, clips from movies like All the President’s Men and The Manchurian Candidate, and more. Morris gives us government secrets, pop culture references, dramatic retellings, interviews—everything but the hard, indisputable truth, which is the one thing Wormwood cannot give. Morris knows as much: The unknowable is the subject of his movie. More answers only raise more questions.
Wormwood plays out like a series of variations on a theme. The death of Frank Olson gets recounted and reimagined over and over until it’s the most extreme versions of the story that start to appear most likely. We experience the turns in the story as the Olson family did over the course of 60-plus years. We start, as they did, taking the story at its word: This is a suicide or freak accident related to the LSD trials being undertaken, secretly, by the CIA in the ’50s. That belief got shattered when the 1975 Rockefeller Commission Report uncovered that Frank Olson was covertly given LSD nine days before his death, raising the possibility of other foul play that the CIA may have covered up. It’s the first in a series of devastating revelations that, among other things, resulted in the Olson family getting a settlement from the government in 1975, face time with President Gerald Ford, and a stack of files from 1953—all of it misleading, according to Wormwood. We eventually learn that everything—down to even the meeting with President Ford—was coordinated to throw the Olsons off from the truth of the matter, appeasing them with a false sense of transparency that would encourage them to take a settlement. How many cover-ups does it take to protect a government secret? If the images Morris uses to tell this story are any indication—the successions of locked vaults and the messy, overlapping collages—the answer is: seemingly infinite.
In the meantime, Peter Sarsgaard (as Frank Olson) and a small supporting cast act out multiple versions of every step in the story, from the secret meeting at Deep Creek Lake (where Olson was given LSD for the first time), to a session with a psychiatrist (who was really an allergist) set up in New York to advise the CIA on Olson’s mental fitness, to the brief time Olson spent at home before the trip to New York, to the last night in that hotel. Everything Sarsgaard et al. perform is off the record: It’s inconsistent, completely speculative, and weirdly terrifying. We come back again and again to the image of Sarsgaard’s dive out of that window, to the moment just before he died, and to the one man who was definitely there, the other men who may have been, the call that was definitely made (as overheard by a phone operator), the calls that may have been made, and on and on. Morris has long enjoyed the paradox of filling the screen with information only to assert, over time, how much that information cannot reveal to us. His fictionalized retellings only remind us of how the truth can be obscured by our own imaginations.
What you sit with for the 240 minutes of the documentary is, ultimately, the impossibility of answering any of these questions. That’s in part because the subject is so much more vast than it initially appears to be. “Wormwood,” tweeted Morris recently, “is about the cost of denying the truth—the cost to Eric Olson, the cost to his family, and the cost to the entire country.” This is a deeply American story, rife with a homegrown brand of paranoia, and all the more pointed for arriving at a time in our history when distrust in the government, and in the media’s ability to expose it, couldn’t be higher. “The best you can do,” says one of the Olson family’s lawyers, “is [ask]: What’s the most plausible story?” Of course, the most plausible story is the one Wormwood has been deconstructing and calling into question all along. A final, scintillating interview with the famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who plays a substantial role in this story, only drives that point home. Wormwood brings us as far as it can go; Hersh goes even further and uncovers evidence of serious wrongdoing from a source in the CIA, but he can’t expose what he knows without more validation. “The source is always more important than the story,” he says, protecting his methods.
This all sounds like a steamy bit of true-crime conspiracy—like a fun watch, in other words. It’s certainly riveting. But it’s painful, too. You cannot ignore how personal this all is when staring into the face of a man who feels his life was overtaken by a mystery no one can solve. “My father didn’t die,” says Eric, in the present. “He really disappeared. When he went to New York, we never saw him again.” Eric Olson still lives in his childhood home; still has the table where he sat across from his father for the last time before the man died. It isn’t merely the case that Morris’s own obsession with the subject gets mapped onto Eric Olson’s obsession. Rather, Morris continually reminds us, it’s that our curiosity simply cannot compare with Eric’s pain. Wormwood is about the loss of two lives: a father who fell to his death from a 13th-story window and a son who, despite spending decades trying to get as close as possible to understanding it, will never get over it.