In 1953, Frank Olson, a bacteriologist employed by the Army Chemical Corps to research biological weapons, fell to his death from the 10th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York City. Olson’s death was ruled a suicide. In 1975, the Rockefeller Commission issued a report detailing abuses by the CIA, including, among other things, experimentation with LSD as part of its MKUltra mind-control studies. Olson, it was revealed, was one of a number of government workers who were surreptitiously drugged, apparently for interrogation purposes.
The Rockefeller report charged that Olson’s consumption of LSD contributed to his mental deterioration—he had a nervous breakdown shortly after—and perhaps caused him to commit suicide. After the report came out the Olson family received an apology from the US government, which was delivered personally by Gerald Ford at the White House, and a $750,000 settlement; there was also a congressional hearing, which turned up little new information and had the effect of forestalling a criminal investigation.
These events, and their aftermath, are the subject of Wormwood, Errol Morris’s new Netflix miniseries. The spirit of Wormwood, and of Morris’s political sensibility generally, can be traced to the early-to-mid-1970s, a kind of golden age of anti-government paranoia. It was the time not only of the Rockefeller Commission report but also of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, revelations about the FBI’s COINTELPRO activities, and, in the arts, landmarks of paranoid style like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
The whole ethos is conveniently embodied, in Wormwood, by Seymour Hersh, the legendary investigative reporter who covered the Olson story in 1975 and who appears in the show’s final episode. (Hersh’s cagey, truculent responses to Morris’s questions—“What do you mean by ‘What do you mean?’ ” he snarls at one point—are one of Wormwood’s highlights.) Yet one of the arguments Morris prosecutes in Wormwood is that even Hersh, that high priest of skepticism, was not suspicious enough, that there is more to the story of Frank Olson’s demise than the most hardened cynics ever dreamed.
There are two basic types of Errol Morris film. One is the character study of an obsessive individual pursuing a difficult, perhaps impossible goal. Morris loves his Ahabs: the animal-obsessed eccentrics of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997); Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the electric-chair designer who becomes a Holocaust denier, in Mr. Death (1999); Joyce McKinney, the woman who kidnapped a Mormon missionary, in Tabloid (2010). The other type is the historical film dedicated to patient but passionate critique of the American security state. The Fog of War (2003), Standard Operating Procedure (2008), and The Unknown Known (2013) are all works in this mode, and it is these later films that have brought Morris the most mainstream success and, in the case of The Fog of War, a long-deserved Academy Award.