Errol Morris Plumbs Dark, Familiar Depths in ‘Wormwood’

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Peter Sarsgaard in 'Wormwood.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

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.


Morris interviews Olson beneath a clock set at the time of his father’s demise, a visual representation that Eric’s life stopped in a real, palpable way at that moment. Wormwood takes its title from a speech by Hamlet, the most famously tormented -- and endlessly betrayed and lied-to -- son of a prematurely deceased man in literature.

“I made the mistake once of saying to Eric -- actually, I thought it was a nice thing to say -- that my father died when I was two years old of a massive heart attack,” Morris recalls. “And he said, ‘How dare you compare yourself with me.’ I spent a lot of time with Eric Olson. I understand Eric. Maybe I know a lot more about him than I know about most people. But I would not say that I can understand the nature of this obsession. It’s fascinating, and powerful. And there is something about losing a parent when you are very, very young. Particularly if you’ve been lied to. All of Eric’s life -- and maybe that’s the story of history -- was trying to penetrate this grotesque cover-up.”

Morris worked for three years as a private investigator during a fallow period in the ‘80s before he encountered the Death Row inmate who inspired The Thin Blue Line. The documentary had a pivotal effect on the case, but generated more attention and controversy for its use of reenactments. (Morris used to call them “enactments” because they didn’t depict what actually happened but what people falsely stated they saw or thought they witnessed.)

“I’ve said this so many times I feel like a broken record,” a jet-lagged Morris says in a late-October conversation while Wormwood screens nearby at the Vogue Theatre, “but I’ll say it again: Reality isn’t given to us on a tray like a Happy Meal. It is something that we search for, we investigate, we look here, we look there, we compare this fact with that fact, this piece of evidence with that piece of evidence. When I was accused by various people at the time of the release of The Thin Blue Line that reenactments should not be part of documentary filmmaking, my retort was that it’s all a reenactment.”

Morris takes a breath, and his measured pace accelerates a bit.

“Consciousness is a reenactment of the world inside of our skulls. We don’t have any direct access to the world around us. We know it’s there, but we piece it together. Consciousness is a collage, a collage which is constantly being tested to see if we are living in some kind of dream or in the world.

"I know this movie addresses so many of my philosophical concerns in one way or another. The focus in Wormwood, whatever genre it belongs to, is finding the truth. There is a truth to be uncovered in the world. Maybe it’s endlessly elusive, but it’s my job to go after it. And anything you bring to bear is fair game, if drama helps you understand it, if reenactment helps you understand it, if archival footage helps you understand it.”

The University of Chicago Press is publishing a collection of Morris’ essays in the spring, The Ashtray (or The Man Who Denied Reality), in which he expounds on and grapples with the notion and importance of truth. Presumably Morris states, as he does in numerous ways and from numerous angles in Wormwood, that history may be a construct and memory subjective, but truth is a goal that should never be abandoned.

'Wormwood' premieres Dec. 15, 2017 on Netflix. Click here for more information.