In “Wormwood,” a six-part Netflix miniseries debuting this week, filmmaker Errol Morris reopens the case of a scientist working for the CIA who died under mysterious circumstances in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.
Another artful hybrid of documentary and docudrama from the Oscar-winning director of “Fog Of War” and “The Thin Blue Line,” “Wormwood” is my Friday Pick.
Here’s the setup:
Frank Olson, a scientist working for the CIA, falls from a 10th-story room at New York’s Statler Hotel.
Because it’s the Cold War, and because Frank was involved in top-secret biowarfare research, the agency invents a story to tell the press as well as Frank’s widow Alice and their three small children.
Frank, they’re told, died in an “accident,” having either “jumped” or “fallen” out of the hotel window.
Because it’s the Cold War, and people trusted their government, and the Commies were plotting our annihilation, Alice believed the government’s story, and told the children to do the same.
Nine-year-old Eric couldn’t.
“If he jumped out the window, how is that an accident? On the other hand, what does it mean to say you fell out of a hotel room window? What does that even mean?”Eric Olson in “Wormwood”
For 22 years, he turned these conflicting accounts over and over in his tortured mind.
And then, suddenly, there was a rewrite of history.
A congressional committee that had been looking into abuses at the CIA in 1975 learned a different version of what happened that fateful night in 1953.
Frank Olson had been on a weekend retreat with other scientists and someone slipped LSD in his cocktail. Without his permission, he was part of a CIA experiment on the effects of hallucinogens. It had gone horribly wrong, and Frank had leaped out the hotel room window.
The family was stunned by this revelation. They held a press conference, which got national press coverage. They demanded to know more.
At that point, two aides to President Ford — Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — came up with a plan. The president would meet the Olsons in the Oval Office and offer a public apology to the family. Ford would then persuade them to accept a cash settlement from Congress for their loss.
As Cheney explained in a memo obtained by Eric Olson, had the family not settled with the government, they could have sued. Then they might have gained access to “highly classified national security.”
And learned what really happened to Frank Olson.
In 2016 @NSArchive discovered that Dick Cheney “significantly altered” the 1975 Rockefeller Commission report, “stripping the report of its independent character.” https://t.co/GwZ9XZ9btG pic.twitter.com/EgVdSnn1ym
— History Is Power (@historyispower_) December 19, 2017
Dark history, but not conspiracy
Over the course of the next four hours of “Wormwood,” with considerable help from Eric Olson, Morris methodically and provocatively picks through this short chapter of Cold War history.
Given the government’s ongoing reluctance to share any facts behind Frank Olson’s death, and given the involvement of Cheney and Rummy, it’s not so surprising that Netflix began promoting “Wormwood” as “An American Conspiracy.” (Its initial publicity left out the C-word.)
But what happened to Frank Olson does not, in my mind, rise to the level of conspiracy. As Morris clearly establishes, Eric Olson’s father was taking part in some dark science to aid the military’s efforts to subdue the Soviet threat. Frank Olson is no innocent. What happens to him has to be weighed against the fact that, so far as the evidence presented here shows, he knew what he was getting into.
As far as the government changing the official story twice — and both of them turning out not to be true — this is outrageous, but is it part of a broader conspiracy? Decide for yourself, but I’m not convinced.
To his credit, Eric Olson doesn’t push the conspiracy line. His tone, his eyes, his thoughtful but weary responses to Morris’ questions all reveal a man who is clearly tired of questions.
He would just like some answers.
Like Randall Adams, the drifter framed for a murder in Morris’ landmark film “The Thin Blue Line,” Olson could’ve been set free from his ordeal years earlier had someone just told the truth.
In the end, I think he, and Morris, do a service to Cold War history.
I won’t spoil the ending — but obviously it’s not a happy one.
Morris uses his trademark re-enactment style to take us back to 1953 and Frank Olson’s last days alive. Watching Peter Sarsgaard as Frank, playing out various alternative scenarios, not knowing which one (if any) is closest to what actually happened, you realize Eric Olson was likely playing scenes like these in his own mind every day … for more than 60 years.
“The details in Morris’s now-famous re-creations of the murder scene change depending on who is telling the story … It’s only when all of these points-of-view are considered together that a greater truth emerges.” @IDAorg on “The Thin Blue Line”https://t.co/w1iv6wG7rR
— History Is Power (@historyispower_) December 19, 2017
Whenever we look back at our history, we see that our national ignorance was so often self-inflicted. Looking back is painful. Growing up, Eric Olson recalls his mother stonewalling his efforts to learn more about his father’s death with, “We already talked about that,” and “It’s in the past, put it behind you.”
But as James Baldwin reminds us, history is not the past, and we carry it around with us at all times.
The unfinished history that “Wormwood” reveals is not pretty. History can be very dark, very ugly.
But it is always better to know. And the sooner the better.
Ellen Kuras is the director of photography on “Wormwood.” As it happens, she’s worked on three other historical films I highly recommend:
4 Little Girls
Doug Jones is in the United States Senate, representing the great state of Alabama, because black voters went to the polls to support him. He’s also there because, as a federal prosecutor, he solved this case.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963 was the coldest of the civil rights era cold cases. Jones was four years away from delivering justice when HBO released this Spike Lee joint, filmed by Kuras, about the bombing.
In 2017 “4 Little Girls” was added to the National Film Registry of historically significant films. (Yes, joining “Birth of a Nation,” about which I wrote earlier this week.)
“4 Little Girls” is on Amazon Prime Video, HBO GO, and as a rental.
Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)
This is Kuras’ greatest work — one she co-directed with the film’s subject during a 23-year production odyssey.
Or do a little legwork, as I’ll explain.
“Nerakhoon” is about the Laotians who assisted U.S. forces and what happened when they were forced to flee their homeland after our withdrawal from Southeast Asia. It is a haunting chronicle of one family’s attempts to adapt to the American way of life.
If “Nerakhoon” were available to stream, I’d have added it to my book 52 History Films You Must See. If you’re willing to go to the trouble, your local library may have it on DVD or be able to get it through interlibrary loan.
No Direction Home
Martin Scorsese chose Kuras for this challenging documentary look at Bob Dylan’s career. Available for rentals.
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