It’s 1953, and a CIA scientist named Frank Olson is at work on the possibilities of biological warfare. In November of that year, the 42-year-old married father of three is staying on the 13th floor of Manhattan’s Statler Hotel with CIA colleagues when he falls, jumps, or gets pushed out the window to his death. It turns out that Olson had been unwittingly used as a test rat for LSD, which the CIA thought might have potential as a truth serum. It also turns out that Olson, who was left depressed and potentially loose-lipped by the drug, may have been murdered by the CIA, which called his death a suicide.
That’s the cold case at the center of Netflix’s “Wormwood,” a masterful, thought-provoking six-part documentary series from Errol Morris. And it’s a riveting cold case, as the evidence of a CIA cover-up mounts over the decades, confirming the kinds of deep conspiracies and secret drug experiments that fuel so many scripted TV and movie thrillers. It’s rich territory right now, as cover-ups make their way into the political news, and Morris is typically unblinking as he reveals the particulars of Olson’s tragic story, right down to the so-called burn bowls in the CIA offices, in which revealing papers were routinely destroyed.
But the miniseries that Morris has built around the shadowy death of Frank Olson — a documentary with fictionalized re-creations — is so much broader and more exciting than an ordinary whodunit. “Wormwood” isn’t about solving the crime and delivering the truth to us after relentless investigation; it’s about the pain-filled pursuit of the truth, the process of digging up — at one point in the miniseries, literally — evidence that ultimately only deepens rather than solves the mystery. It’s about the quicksand that is certainty and the basic human discomfort of not knowing. While episodes of “Law & Order” might restore our faith in satisfying denouements, “Wormwood” takes us on a compelling — and, finally, a poignant — journey into absolute muddle.
The journey, actually, belongs to Olson’s son Eric, who was 9 when his father died. “Wormwood” is as much if not more about Eric, now 73, than about his late father. Eric Olson has remained haunted by the blurry circumstances of his father’s death, to the point where both his career and love life suffered. He repeatedly compares himself to Hamlet — and so does Morris, dropping in clips of Laurence Olivier in the role of Shakespeare’s father-avenging prince; but at times in “Wormwood,” you may instead think of Quixote. He has been pushing the investigation into his father — with his siblings and mother sometimes along for the ride — for so long that it seems to define him.
Morris gives us a lot of footage of Eric Olson telling the story of his father in what looks like an old, empty office. There’s nothing to distract from the speaker’s intensity, except a clock on the wall stuck at 2:33 a.m., which is the same time his father died. Morris also occasionally shows us different angles of Olson talking in split screen — an effective way to remind us of how Olson remains fractured by his persistent need for answers. Olson tells us that his mother, now dead, would repeat to him over and over, “You are never going to know what happened in that room,” but he never listened to her. At the same time, Olson is openly aware that, even if he does find out what truly happened to his father in the Statler Hotel that night, resolution will change nothing.
If the miniseries were built solely on Morris’s long, probing interviews with Eric Olson, it would be solid enough. As he talks about his family’s lawsuit against the government, the apology they received from President Ford, the exhumation of his father’s body, and his visit to the fateful New York hotel room, Olson is sympathetic and intelligent. Morris illustrates all the vignettes in standard documentary style, with old news clips and photos, taking us through the public side of the story and adding context. But then Morris also includes recurring fictionalized sequences — not the generic reenactments we tend to find in average cable documentaries, but artful scripted pieces featuring well-known actors, led by Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson. These pieces are impressionistic and murky, and they are a hypnotic accent to all of the facts.
To many purists, this kind of hybrid narrative is a dangerous path — fiction and nonfiction must be distinct. I often find reenactments limiting and unimaginative. But in “Wormwood,” the fictional material — which focuses on Frank’s last days — brings us further into Eric Olson’s imagination. The pieces are stubbornly vague and foggy, and they work to expand rather than reduce our sense of the mystery of Frank Olson’s story and Eric Olson’s obsession.
One of the redolent images Morris delivers early on has Sarsgaard’s Frank Olson falling from his hotel room in slow motion, twisting and turning midair, arms flailing. At first, I saw it as an evocation of the sad fate of the innocent man whose death is at the center of “Wormwood.” Like the title sequence of “Mad Men,” a man is out of control and dropping fast. But by the end of this miniseries, the image takes on more emotional resonance. Its meaning expands from the father to the son, the guy who is still falling, the guy who is still waiting.
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban
On: Netflix, six-part miniseries streams FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.