American military scientist Dr. Frank Olson unknowingly consumes an LSD cocktail — per CIA orders. He returns home and a few days later kills himself. Or at least, that’s what the US government wants you to believe.
The only thing we do know for sure is that on November 28, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of the Statler hotel in New York City.
Unraveling the surrounding mystery is the premise of “Wormwood,” the latest masterpiece by filmmaker Errol Morris. In the new Netflix original, Morris masterfully blends interview-driven documentary filmmaking with dramatized narrative scenes led by actor Peter Sarsgaard in the role of Olson to create a quick moving true-crime thriller. It is a series worthy of, and which requires, more than one’s passive attention.
“Wormwood” is both a reference to the play “Hamlet” — which is invoked throughout the series — as well as a bitter herbal extract rumored to have hallucinogenic properties.
The story is laid out by Olson’s son, Eric, who in an extensive interview with Morris reveals a lifetime’s worth of information collected on his father’s death.
As the six-part series, or 241-minute film (depending on how you watch it), rolls on, the story becomes just as much about Olson’s questionable death as it is about its tragic effect on the family. The mother develops an alcohol addiction and Eric, now in his 60s, devotes his adult life to obsessively tracking down answers.
At the time of Olson’s death, his family accepted the government’s story that his fall was a suicide caused by work-related stress.
But the release of the Rockefeller Commission Report in 1975, a 299-page document commissioned by President Gerald Ford to investigate CIA activity, exposed the CIA’s Project MKUltra, a government-sanctioned study in mind control.
Twenty-two years after Olson’s death, the report revealed that the alleged suicide was induced by a glass of Cointreau spiked with LSD that CIA agents gave an unassuming Olson days before his death. While Olson took the drug — along with other scientists — it seems that it had a more aggressive effect on him. Whatever happened at that gathering led Olson to attempt to resign days later.
After the report was released, the White House orchestrated a public apology and invited the Olson family into the Oval Office for a sit down with Ford in hopes of avoiding a potential lawsuit. The government classifies Olson’s death as a drug-induced suicide to this day.
It’s revealed as the story unfolds that Olson, who worked on biological weapons, was wavering in support for the Agency and was perhaps considering exposing top secret US government information, increasing his son’s suspicion of foul play.
The series has been heralded for the groundbreaking style that Morris is known to bring to all of his films. The Jewish filmmaker from New York tends to make documentaries focused on the testimony of a single individual with Morris in the role of lead interrogator.
His most famous documentary, “The Thin Blue Line,” released in 1988, used witness statements to question the conviction of a convicted murderer who was later found innocent.
While “Wormwood” was originally intended to revolve around MKUltra, it ultimately focuses on the son’s all-consuming question: Was his father murdered? To tell the story, in addition to Sarsgaard, who married Jewish actress Maggie Gyllenhaal in 2009, Molly Parker plays Frank Olson’s wife.
In an interview on Variety’s “PopPolitics” on radio’s SiriusXM, Morris said, “At the center of this story is a theme that is still ongoing in our current society, and it is the story of government lying. To what extent can the government unendingly lie to us, and can we still call this a democracy?”
“Wormwood” is a thrilling series, shedding light on secrets the government would rather you not find.