Army scientist Frank Olson plunged to his death from a Manhattan hotel window in 1953. The authorities deemed it a suicide. His son contends he was murdered by the CIA.
Director Errol Morris examines both possibilities in painstaking detail — exploring Eric Olson’s lifelong obsession with discovering the truth surrounding his father’s mysterious death — in “Wormwood,” a six-episode docu-series streaming Friday on Netflix. (It will also be released in select theaters as a 240 minute film.)
In Morris’ hands, it’s as much a true-crime whodunit as a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true, replete with covert, Cold War-era CIA operations, chemical and psychological warfare, government espionage and state-sponsored murder.
The results are a mixed bag of gripping narratives and thinly sourced theories, firsthand accounts and cinematic re-creations, exhaustive research and flagrant conjecture.
Morris upended the world of documentary filmmaking with 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line,” a masterpiece that elevated (or, some would say, compromised) the medium and helped free an innocent man serving a death sentence for murders he did not commit. Morris deviated from the traditional, just-the-facts approach with his use of fictional, dramatic re-creations and speculative scenarios, making his own theories central to the theme.
Reenactments are now a standard tool of the trade on true crime networks such Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. But in the hands of less artful directors, dramatizations by amateur actors are often as distracting as they are unintentionally amusing.
With “Wormwood,” Morris reclaims the approach he popularized by employing accomplished performers such as Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson, Peter Sarsgaard and Bob Balaban to bridge the gap between fact, presumption and fantasy.
Eric Olson claims that, in the weeks before his father’s death, Frank Olson became part of a CIA experiment when he was unwittingly fed LSD by a colleague. Frank had been working on a top-secret project but had become increasingly disillusioned with the agency he worked for. He reacted poorly to the drug and was deemed unstable and a potential threat to CIA security.
As absurd as it sounds, documents uncovered over the years by journalists such as Seymour Hersh validate many of Olson’s claims. Reams of formerly classified papers revealed that his father was, indeed, part of an LSD experiment, and the experience triggered a deep depression that caused Olson to take his own life. The family was paid $750,000 in compensation by the government.
Eric Olson, however, makes the case that his father was murdered and backs up his claim with decades’ worth of convincing research.
Olson is a character unto himself, an awkward yet brilliant Harvard alum, a psychotherapy researcher who spent his best years consumed with his father’s death. He’s not an emotional or warm figure, so sticking with him here as a viewer means becoming invested in his obsessive quest. It’s a big ask that may be too much for the mildly interested.
But he’s an irresistible figure for the conspiracy-minded: “He was losing control,” explains Eric of his father, “and there’s a premium placed on control,” he says of the CIA.
Documents obtained here include an alleged CIA assassination manual from the 1950s that provides a step-by-step guide on the best way to dispose of someone. “Push them off a high window or ledge,” it reads, and Morris peppers the scene with news clips of several other men connected with the CIA who fell from windows.
Interviews with Olson’s former colleagues, Hersh and witnesses such as the hotel night manager on duty the night Olson fell to his death lay the groundwork for a tale of state-sponsored murder and cover-up that goes all the way up to President Ford. Some of it’s believable, some of it too intent on bringing Eric Olson’s fantasies and nightmares to life.
This isn’t Netflix’s first rodeo in the arena of true crime. 2015’s “Making a Murderer” helped put the streaming service on the map in that regard, inciting a national conversation about the guilt or innocence of convicted murderer Steven Avery. Though wildly successful, it was also amateur-ish and irresponsible, pushing so hard in one direction to prove Avery’s innocence that it became blinded to its own glaring bias.
Morris is much better than that, and with “Wormwood,” he never promises to wrap up the mystery of Frank Olson’s death in a neat little package. It’s a son’s journey to find closure that makes this absorbing, if not slightly paranoid, series worth your time.
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)