The truth may still be out there, but even dogged documentarian Errol Morris knows there can be an enormous personal cost to pursuing it. While Morris’s investigation in his breakthrough 1988 work, “The Thin Blue Line,” led to the exoneration of a death row inmate in Texas, and his Oscar-winning film, “The Fog of War,” prompted former defense secretary Robert McNamara to reckon with his past mistakes in the Vietnam War, his new six-part series, “Wormwood,” explores the psychological and emotional toll of trying to uncover the truth about the past — and the limits of what we can discover.
The series, which premieres on Netflix Friday (along with a limited theatrical release of the 241-minute epic), probes the mysterious circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of military scientist Frank Olson, who plummeted to his death from a 13th-floor New York hotel window, and dissects the official explanation later given by the CIA. But Morris is also traveling a road he’s not often taken, examining the costs of that quest on Frank Olson’s son, Eric, as he goes to great lengths over several decades to learn the truth about his father’s death, to the detriment of his personal and professional life.
“There’s so many ideas floating around in ‘Wormwood’ — maybe too many ideas,” says Morris with a grin, speaking inside his East Cambridge offices during a recent rainy afternoon. “But there’s certainly the idea that I’ve never really thought about clearly before: At what expense, truth? That the pursuit of truth itself may in the end destroy you — or do something pretty close to destroying you.”
Hundreds of books cover nearly every surface in Morris’s office. There’s a horse head protruding from the wall above his desk, upon which sits a glass jar containing a monkey head. Plopped down in a chair, Morris is genial and welcoming, with a sharp, playful sense of irony and a yen for circuitous digressions that inevitably return to his original point.
As someone whose obsessive investigative impulses seem to know no bounds, Morris acknowledges that he deeply identifies with Eric Olson’s mission. “Is Eric a kindred spirit? Of course he’s a kindred spirit,” Morris says. “He’s tortured. You can even say the quest is deeply quixotic. But it’s noble. At least for me, there’s some inherent nobility in trying to seek the truth.”
Jettisoning his famed Interrotron interviewing machine (that allows the camera to capture direct eye contact with the interviewee), Morris has instead fashioned his most daring, ambitious, and experimental work yet — a sui generis blend of interviews using multiple cameras, archival footage, home movies and photographs, and investigatory documents, with a dramatic narrative fiction film interwoven throughout. “The result,” said one critic, “is a documentary-fiction combination like nothing seen before.”
Indeed, the ante is upped on Morris’s usual speculative “reenactments,” which raised the ire of the documentary branch of the motion picture academy in 1988 when he first used the technique in “The Thin Blue Line,” resulting in one of the most flagrant Oscar snubs in history. The dreamlike, hallucinatory narrative sections in “Wormwood” feature Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson, Molly Parker as his wife, Alice, Christian Camargo and Scott Shepherd as Olson’s shadowy colleagues Vin Ruwet and Robert Lashbrook, and Tim Blake Nelson as CIA spymaster and chemist Sidney Gottlieb.
When he discussed the idea for the series with Netflix, Morris says he pitched it as “the Everything Bagel.” “You have a mosaic of all of these elements. It is a tapestry, a collage, in the end,” he says. “It doesn’t interest me to just do this straightforward look at history that doesn’t in some way include how a story has been manufactured, manipulated, changed.”
For years, the Olson family had been told Frank committed suicide, but his cause of death was described as a jump or fall, two very different possibilities. Then in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission issued a report detailing a litany of illegal spy agency activities, including the CIA’s nefarious MK-Ultra mind-control program. It included a reference to a 1953 incident in which a scientist was purposely drugged with LSD without his knowledge and died from a fall from a building a few days later. The Olsons suspected it was Frank. Then-President Gerald Ford invited the family to the Oval Office and issued a rare formal apology from the US government.
The Olsons also received settlement money from Congress and were handed documents from former CIA director William Colby about the case. But over the years, Eric Olson learned that there may have been much more to the story, including his father’s work on the military’s secret biological and chemical weapons programs, and that the LSD story may have been a cover.
“What happened in that hotel room, 1018A?,” Morris asks. “One of my favorite exchanges in the series is when Alice says to Eric, ‘You’re never going to know what happened in that room!’ And Eric says, ‘Yes, I am.’ And Alice says, ‘No, you’re not. You’re never going to know.’ ”
Indeed, to underscore the Shakespearean dimensions, Morris also weaves in footage from the 1948 Laurence Olivier film version of “Hamlet” — drawing parallels between the Danish prince’s quest to avenge his father’s death and Eric’s own quixotic journey.
While the Colby documents are full of details, Morris says they don’t amount to a coherent narrative of what actually happened. “There’s multiple accounts, and they’re all slightly different. What better source for drama than an apocryphal account of what transpired? It’s part of a bigger story. It’s like a set of Russian nesting dolls inside each other.”
For Sarsgaard, the focal point of “Wormwood” is about “how destructive deception ultimately is. Eric carried around this deception [about his father’s death] for his entire life, and so you really get to see how, on a very personal level, that manifests. We live in this era of widespread deceit. I don’t think we’ve realized the full consequences of deception — and just how soul-crushing it can be on a personal level.”
The appearance in “Wormwood” of renowned investigative journalist Seymour Hersh signals there’s still more of the story to be told. “It may not be quite the end of the road yet,” Morris says. “I would like to see it taken a step further. This is a story that quite clearly involves coverups. But we don’t know to what extent.”
“Wormwood,” Morris says, is about “the process of finding things out, how we find things out, the efforts that people make to prevent us from finding things out, and ultimately the human cost, to others and to ourselves, of trying to find things out.”
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Christian Camargo, Scott Shepherd, Tim Blake Nelson. On Netflix, streams FridayChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.