Obsessive protagonist? Check. True-crime investigation? Check. Stylized reenactments? Check. Government deceit and malfeasance? Check.
Errol Morris’ immersive new documentary, the Cold War-suffused Wormwood (premiering Dec. 15, 2017 on Netflix), is a lavishly illustrated compilation of his favorite themes, tropes and tics going back nearly three decades to The Thin Blue Line. But the craft, diligence and sculpted artifice that Morris brings to bear risks obscuring as much as it reveals about the bizarre death of Dr. Frank Olson, a civilian scientist employed on a shadowy U.S. Army project at Ft. Dietrich, Maryland.
“It’s a battlefield in this story,” Morris says, “because as people are struggling to make sense of the story, people at the same time are trying to cover up the story, to obfuscate the story, to sweep the story -- not to use too many metaphors -- under the rug. So it’s a powerful story about cover-up, and I find [journalist] Sy Hersh in the end really, really, really interesting when he talks about maybe you can’t prove, in the sense of crossing all of the t’s and dotting all of the i’s, what happened here. But we pretty much know it.”
Dr. Olson jumped, fell or was pushed to his death from the window of his 13th-floor Manhattan hotel room the last week of November, 1953. The police report called it a suicide, and Morris devotes nearly four hours across six episodes delineating the evolution, shall we say, of the official explanations.
Our rock-steady guide through Wormwood is the deeply intelligent and still-tormented Eric Olson, who was nine years old when his father died. He has probed and pursued official records and off-the-record reports for decades with an unrelenting persistence that occasionally tipped into self-destructive mania.