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Guilt Trip

Errol Morris searches for a link between a mourning son, the CIA, and LSD.

Illustration by Aad Goudappel

We are living in a golden age of rubbernecking entertainment. Even as audiences fracture according to hyperspecific tastes, it is not unusual for millions of people across the country to be puzzling out the same murder at once, dissecting clues from the real cold cases in twisty shows like HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. These series tend to be heavy on mystery but not on mourning; the victims feature only as the starting point for an investigation. The relatives of the departed rarely appear either, the ones who are left holding the torch and facing the bottomless vortex of questions after a crime. Stultifying grief doesn’t always make for compelling television.

In his new series, Wormwood, however, Errol Morris has made a bold choice: He has decided to make a crime documentary about a grieving son. Eric Olson has spent six decades searching for the truth about the death of his father, Frank, a military scientist who fell from a window of the Statler Hotel in New York City in 1953. Olson was nine years old at the time. His father’s death was instantly ruled a suicide, and in the years that followed, the family—Eric, his two siblings, and his mother, Alice—attempted to recalibrate to some semblance of normalcy despite having only murky details about their loss. But Eric could not seem to regain equilibrium. He had a sinking feeling that his father’s death was the product of malice and deep deception.

Then in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission Report revealed that Frank had been part of a top-secret CIA program that involved dosing scientists with LSD without their knowledge. Olson gained a bundle of CIA documents stating that his father had exhibited a negative reaction to the LSD, that he’d been brought to New York for psychiatric rehabilitation, and then leaped 13 stories from his hotel window despite his colleagues’ best efforts to recover his sanity. Despite a formal apology from Gerald Ford, Olson couldn’t stop digging. Being in the inner sanctum only made him more suspicious. He felt that the government’s contrition was too showy, a floral bouquet hiding a poisonous spider. He continued to hunt, to ask the needling questions for decades, losing his psychology practice, a woman he loved, and his grasp on reality along the way.

Olson does not feel entirely alone in his all-consuming grief. The show takes its name from a particularly bitter moment in Hamlet, when the bereaved prince whispers “wormwood, wormwood.” Obsessed by his father’s death, Hamlet slowly goes mad; no one close to him seems to care about it the way he does. The anger remains his own, the restless ghosts his alone to banish. This does not stop him from destroying everyone he loves in the process or from torpedoing his own life and many others’ because he cannot, and will not, stop pushing for a conclusion. Something similar, Olson says, has happened to him. At one point, he tells Morris, he even checked in to the exact room where his father died, just in case he might be able to reconstruct the events by physically inhabiting the scene of the crime. He didn’t sleep that night and instead sat up like a sentinel, awaiting his father’s ghost.

In 1994, after his mother died, Olson went so far as to exhume his father’s body, an investigation that turned up signs of foul play and opened up another wormhole of bitterness; not only was his father drugged without consent, but now he had potentially been murdered by the CIA. The dark questions kept coming, along with the doubt; the paranoia; the looping, seasick circles of what-ifs and Who is responsible? and Is everything, everywhere, a lie? Olson is a man possessed, a man whose curiosity is his tragic flaw, a man whose brain went to Harvard but whose heart never progressed past being nine years old and lied to, a lanky, loquacious loner with an ax to grind. He feels that Hamlet is the scaffolding that has wrapped around his quest. He is smart enough to know that this is a tragedy.

Morris, who dropped out of a graduate program at Berkeley in philosophy because “it was just a world of pedants,” has always seen himself as a kind of cinematic outsider. In 1988, he achieved his first major success as a documentarian with The Thin Blue Line, which told the story of Randall Dale Adams, a Texan man wrongfully sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. Through crime scene re-enactments and a series of interviews, Morris presented a valiant case for Adams’s innocence, a case that led to the overturn of his sentence and his release in 1989. (Adams died a recluse in 2010.) Despite its impact, the movie did not fare well in awards season. The Thin Blue Line “was passed over for an Academy Award nomination,” Morris told Vulture in 2015, “because some people were appalled by the use of re-enactments”:

But there are re-enactments, and there are re-enactments. There are re-enactments that are known in the motion picture business as “show and tell” re-enactments. The re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line were not show and tell. It’s one of the things that makes them unique.

Morris used re-enactments not to shut down questions but to open them: If a witness was standing there when the shot was fired, what could she really see? This technique may seem old hat to us now. But in 1988, this sort of documentary filmmaking—what Morris has called “an essay on false history”—was something altogether new and in many ways baffling to the Academy. Was it advocacy? Journalism? Novelistic nonfiction?

Not only has Morris’s work continued to evade categories in the decades since, but many other filmmakers have followed his lead. “A whole group of people,” he has said, “literally everyone, believed a version of the world that was entirely wrong, and my accidental investigation of the story provided a different version of what happened.” This approach in many ways set the template for the true-crime boom of the last few years: Without it, we wouldn’t have Serial, or The Staircase, or The Jinx, or Making a Murderer, or even American Vandal, a parody of these shows set in a high school.

What was Morris to do, in the world he made, with the story of Frank Olson? Wormwood uses a lot of his old tricks but brings in a star-studded cast (Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban, Molly Parker) to play out possible versions of events. These scenes are not just re-enactments but, like Hamlet’s play within a play, something more inspired. Full of midcentury costumes and hotel neons, centering on an actual case of vertigo and conspiracy, they combine the elements of a Hitchcock film. Everyone is shifty-eyed, wearing tailored suits; a vague wash of acid green hangs over the city streets.

Morris has also said that if he gave Wormwood a subtitle, it would be The LSD Was a Red Herring, because while the CIA seems to imply that Frank Olson’s death was a result of the controversial and at times illegal experiments of the 1950s, both Eric Olson and others investigating the case find that the truth may be even more sinister. And yet, LSD permeates the series as a visual language; Morris makes a meal out of swirling cameras and hallucinations and the sense of fog that descends over Frank Olson (Sarsgaard) and never seems to leave. The early episodes move slowly, like the vision of someone in a twilight state, a gradual sublimation into Eric Olson’s mind. Once the story reaches its maximum saturation, however, it starts to veer off into wild directions, and its paths begin to tangle and become less clear.

Later in his life, Eric Olson discovers that his father was perhaps considered to be a dissident who had major concerns about the work he was tasked with in the lab. The LSD administered to him at a cabin in the woods was not, Olson learns, an innocent trial meant to see what happens when a scientist gets high, but a pointed effort to get him to confess his beliefs and show his most dangerous tendencies under the effects of a truth serum. If this is the case—I won’t reveal Olson’s reason for believing it is—then, as Morris infers, Frank Olson may have been not just murdered but executed.

This is where the story gets deeply messy and most compelling, when the son seems to come closest to touching the truth of his father’s demise and yet also to cracking up himself. The journalist Seymour Hersh, who worked with Olson to discover classified information about his father’s death, tells Morris in the last episode that he cannot publish the story without burning his source, and that, at least as of this year, he may never be able to reveal exactly what he knows about Frank Olson’s death at the Statler Hotel. What Hersh does say is that “Eric knows,” and that perhaps that should be enough. He also pleads with Morris not to make the film entirely about the state of media. “Don’t make this a big deal about journalism,” Hersh says. “About an amazing, sensitive, credible thing. Well, duh. The source is more important than the story, always.”

Eric Olson, Morris accepts, may never get the conclusion that he desires, even if the film reignites an official investigation into his father’s death. Little can change the fate of father or son. Wormwood is the tragedy of two men, both of whose lives were taken away from them on the same night. With the beautiful historical accuracy of his narrative and the most candid interviews he has ever done, Morris has created a work of true crime suspense that certainly crowns his own work, along with anything else available to stream now. But the pill is hard to swallow. Wormwood, the herb, was often used to make a harsh medicine, a tonic that burned on the way down even as it was meant to cleanse the body. Morris’s documentary works the same way—it exposes malfeasance, allowing Olson one last chance to air his trauma. And yet, even after truth comes to light, the aftertaste is bitter.