As the year reaches its twilight, it is becoming clear that 2017 was the year of iconoclasm. The wave of scandals and shocking revelations (shocking to those unaware of the habits of the elite) has cracked the great marble edifices of many a celebrity or political persona. For a population as addicted to social media and the religion of fads as ours, it is very telling that it has taken sex to shock the public consciousness into the realization that fame is a mask, popularity a vulgar makeup. But the current, lurid headlines still distract from a truth everyone knows but would prefer to whisper: There are darker ceremonies taking place in the deepest, darkest chambers of the American halls of power.
There is perhaps no better work of film this year that taps into the witch’s Sabbath of government policy than Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Designed as a six-part miniseries scheduled to stream on Netflix December 15, Morris’s hybrid film, combining documentary with drama, uses the tragic story of Frank Olson — a scientist from the Army’s biological weapons center at Fort Detrick, who jumped from the tenth floor of a New York hotel to his death in 1953 — to explore the CIA’s Cold War mind control experiments. For years Olson’s name was notorious for being connected with early CIA experiments involving LSD. The running theory was that Olson had been given the drug as part of a test: he endured a “bad trip” and subsequently lost it to the point of diving out a window. But as the film chronicles the obsessed efforts of Olson’s son Eric to uncover the truth, it becomes evident the official story was most likely an invention to cover-up what could very well have been a murder.
The approach Morris uses to weave the intricate tapestry of this film is a brilliant amalgam of real interviews and dramatic recreations. Eric Olson himself sits in front of the camera, his face haunted by time and obsession, while Peter Sarsgaard plays the doomed Frank Olson in dramatic sections filmed in noir textures. Wormwood as envisioned by Morris is chronicle, nightmare and powerful scrapbook of memories. The room from which Olson jumped serves as a starting point to travel into the immoral, violent character of the America that always existed beneath the conservative ethos of the post-World War II world. There is a hallucinatory edge to the visuals, especially a recurring image of Olsen standing in a lake, waving his arms into the water, transfixed either by the drug he has taken or the sense of a life becoming ever more surreal.
Morris enters a vein of art which casts American institutions as a metaphor for all that is dark and haunted about our recent past and history. Eric Olson himself is a man who abandoned the chance of raising a family and building a brilliant career because of the consuming drive to discover just what happened to his father. The nightmare apparently began on November 18, 1953 when Frank Olson and some colleagues met with CIA officers at the Deer Creek Lodge in the mountains of western Maryland. According to the government’s findings, Olson and another colleague were given a dose of LSD in their drinks and were told as much by a present CIA doctor named Sidney Gottlieb (played in the series by Tim Blake Nelson). The dose was part of the agency’s infamous MK-ULTRA program, which sought to explore various forms of mind control and truth extraction. In the aftermath of the Korean War- and as the Cold War became hotter- U.S. intelligence was reportedly alarmed by claims that Communist regimes were attempting “brainwash” techniques to make American spies talk (or even switch sides). Thus the CIA began devising its own ways to resist such tactics and even apply them to Soviet spies captured in the United States. After the meeting in the cabin, Olson reportedly displayed behavior typical of a mental breakdown and as the days and weeks passed he made strange claims, asked to be fired to his superiors and found himself supervised by military handlers. Olson’s strange and disturbing odyssey culminated in a stay at the Statler-Hilton in New York, accompanied by fellow guinea pig Richard Lashbrook. Lashbrook would claim that he awoke to find Olson diving out the window.
Until the 1970s, when in the wake of Watergate public distrust of government spiked and the Church Hearings exposed the seedy underbelly of the CIA’s clandestine habits, the Olson family was oblivious to the details behind what happened to Frank Olson. Preferring to simply let the past go, it was when the CIA admitted the MK-ULTRA program as fact after revelatory reporting by journalist Seymour Hersh, that son Eric decided to pursue the truth.
Morris’s film taps into a unique, palpable zeitgeist. Recent developments have opened a disturbing sense of illumination when it comes to the workings of our society. Unlike the political radicalism of the Bush years, our current predicament seems to be one of disturbed reflection. We’re becoming more aware of the human dimensions of the kind of ghouls running the show. History is made by individuals driven by rages, scars, obsessions and selfish desires, from the blonde one in D.C. to the cold-eyed chess player in Moscow. As CIA-hired soldier of fortune David Ferrie states in Don DeLillo’s brilliant novel Libra, “I have private torments, they require something larger than an army.” In the world of Morris’s film history is driven by men obsessed with science’s potential as a weapon, and a disregard for human victims.
For over four hours Wormwood works as a series of layers being lifted, revealing more disturbing layers as the story unfolds. Morris takes his time to frame the Olson case as one detail in the broader, recent imperial history of the United States. Men associated with the Olson story, such as former CIA directors Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, were also connected to some of the most infamous, bloodiest of American adventures including coups in Guatemala, Iran and Chile. As the agency tested LSD on its own employees, it sought ways to assassinate Fidel Castro and quite successfully killed the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. The climactic crucible of the period would be the inferno of Vietnam. Morris selects film clips of powerful men that are quite telling. Helms and another notable CIA director, William Colby, stare and walk with the stride of the patrician masters of dark arts- cold, poised, ruthless.
As Eric gets closer to the truth, he begins to wonder if Frank was murdered for having discovered that the United States had been using chemical weapons in Korea. In one of the documentary’s most disturbing sections, Seymour Hersh himself admits he might have found evidence supporting this conclusion, but he can’t write about it because even now, over 60 years after the event, the nature of the information is too incendiary for print. Morris imagines the final moments in the hotel in Rashomon style, with different variations on how Olson could have been pushed or forced out the window. Two threatening figures in coats and fedoras represent CIA agents sent to do the job. Contrasted with this, film clips of Eric’s infancy, cradled by his parents, take on an ominous tone as he realizes his white picket fence life was all illusion.
Here the film embodies our national psyche. Our national consciousness is defined by imagery. The flag, images of opulence and what we consume on television or online define our perception of the country. A new study shows that 37% of Netflix streamers do their binging at work. But this year has played like a national autopsy of the American Dream. Respected public figures are revealed as predators, liberal heroes as secret violators of personal autonomy.
In Wormwood the signs that Olson might have been murdered come from his body, which shows bruises and marks inconsistent with having jumped through a hotel window. Our own system is starting to show the bruising and psychological damage of unfettered power and dominance over others. Morris has been down this road before, chronicling some of our more pathological political traits. His Standard Operating Procedure tells the story of the torture porn from Abu Ghraib, The Fog of War is a one on one interview with Vietnam War architect Robert McNamara, and The Unknown Known is a sit down with McNamara’s historical heir, Donald Rumsfeld. In these films we get a sense of individuals so enraptured by power and faith in their intelligence, that they wield violence over the earth like blind wannabe soothsayers. In Norman Mailer’s epic, gothic novel of the CIA, Harlot’s Ghost, a man dedicated to the cause states, “I also believe that even at my worst, I am still working, always working, as a soldier of God.”
Perhaps the key insight of Morris’s film is that history claims its own victims in private, shadowy spaces. Olson was for the agency a mere statistic, an unfortunate soul swallowed by the greater enterprise of the Cold War. If he was murdered to impose silence, it is another testament to the way in which powerful institutions few the individual as a mere cog, to be replaced at will. Wormwood speaks to our deepest fears that we are all cogs in a greater machine. Weapons of war are still deployed abroad, domestically we carry on as technology becomes a tool of surveillance, and paranoia about foreign enemies will drive the system to commit terrible acts in the name of civilization and progress. Intoxicants used by others for leisure are turned into hallucinatory tools of intrigue and the will to power. I was reminded while watching this film of the new, groundbreaking book Blitzed, by German author Norman Ohler, which reveals the history of meth as a stimulant used by the Nazis for the Blitzkrieg. According to the documents uncovered by Ohler, Adolf Hitler himself was injected with strange cocktails to keep him going in a manic frenzy even as the war reached its zenith. The fascist beast was already mad with his daydreams, but the chemicals kept him ready for battle. In 2008 The Nation reported that Georgian troops trained by NATO, and captured by Russian forces during the short war between both countries, were found to be carrying strange packets with drugs designed to numb their senses before engaging in combat.
Wormwood is four searing hours where personal memories mingle with the subterranean corners of American history. It is document and parable, and informative warning that serves as an illumination through film of the dark corridors we are still passing through.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.