Ben Watches Television : Wormwood (2017)
Legendary documentary filmmaker Errol Morris dropped on Netflix a six-episodes mini series called Wormwood last Saturday and everybody was excited but confused as to what it exactly was. An Errol Morris film named after an apocalyptic reference from the bible? What could go wrong, right?
If you're unfamiliar with Morris, know that he directed some of the great social documentaries of our time, such as : The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. He's old and very good at that one thing (getting interesting people to talk to him) and his movies are among the most intense and honest documentary experiences you'll ever have.
Wormwood, though, is a slightly different animal.
It was sold as a groundbreaking hybrid of documentary and high-profile fiction approach, but it really is a docudrama, which is not groundbreaking at all. Wormwood is, on the surface, a series about project MK-Ultra, the CIA's experiments on mind control. There are segments where Errol Morris investigates the death of Frank Olson, an army scientist who seemingly committed suicide after being given LSD by the CIA, mostly through his son Eric who dedicated his life to the mystery.
There are conversational segments and dramatic reenactments. The form is pretty conventional.
Is Wormwood good?
It's great. If you're familiar with the work of Errol Morris, you'll be right at home in Wormwood. His documentaries all have the same quality, which is present here : it seems to be about something on the surface (for instance, project MK-Ultra), but it really is about the underlying, unknowable reality lying underneath that. You're initially convinced that the CIA has given LSD to Frank Olson, which lead him to kill himself and by episode 6, the only thing you're convinced is that it did not happen that way and that reality must've been infinitely more terrifying.
Wormwood is about Eric Olson's obsession with getting some form of justice for his father, too. The death of Frank Olson, which happened in 1953, will come under questioning following an article by Seymour Hersh in 1975, and become Eric's life project afterwards. He spent close to forty years trying to get answers from the American government, only to get stonewalled at every turn by self-important suits looking to cover their tracks and save their careers.
So, Wormwood is not really about project MK-Ultra. It busts through this popular conspiracy theory about three episodes in and reveals something far scarier.
What is Wormwood really about?
It's about the same thing most Errol Morris are about : undoing popular narratives. Exposing the reality under conventionally accepted truths. There's this scene at the end of Standard Operating Procedure where an army operative goes through a series of prisoner photos to point out whether they're being tortured or going through standard operating procedure, which exposes the army's cold, clinical process for determining what's torture and what's not. The driving idea behind Wormwood is similar : sort out what's true and what's folklore in project MK-Ultra, using the story of Frank Olson.
There are no documented truths, stemming from Wormwood. Only shadowy assumptions made by people who connected the dots. By the end of episode 6, you know what most likely happened to Frank Olson but you won't get any official reassurance. The most troubling scene in that regard is the confrontation Errol Morris has with Seymour Hersh at the end of the show. Hersh obviously heard the truth from a reliable source, but doesn't have the necessary proof to go public and he's visibly frustrated by that. I think it was J. David Osborne who said on social media that Wormwood was a rebuttal to the saying that "no one can keep a secret", which is correct.
Wormwood is probably my favorite Errol Morris project, so far. It's a four-hours long culmination of everything he stands for as a filmmaker : breaking the false sense of security you've been instilled by institutions and showing you the complexity of the fragmented truth.
If it seems simple, a significant part of it has been hidden from you.