It Had Been Made Bitter
A lot of factors can contribute to a filmmaker delivering the best work of his career. Circumstances from finding the right cast to discovering the right project to getting the ideal financing can combine to make all the difference in the world. Other times, it’s waiting until exactly the right medium comes along. Errol Morris, already one of the greatest documentarians of our time, didn’t necessarily want to make his staggering new project, Wormwood, in the form of a multi-part television series to be shown on a streaming subscription service; he initially wanted to do it, as he has done most of his other notable work, as a theatrical release of standard length and structure. But the motion picture industry is changing, and it’s hard to raise money for a traditional documentary, especially one that conforms to Morris’ high standards of production, in the age of cheap and quick digital video. So Netflix made him the right offer, on the contingency that he follow through on initial discussions to mix his usual format with something more reminiscent of prestige television. He agreed, and the result — which could have been a disaster — is the greatest art in an already impressive filmography.
Wormwood tells the story, with which I have long been obsessed, of Frank Olson, a scientist employed by the CIA to develop biological and chemical weapons. Olson died in 1953 after plummeting from a hotel window in New York; in the subsequent years, the story changed, from suicide to a mad misadventure caused by exposure to LSD to, finally, murder. It also tells the story of Frank’s son Eric, who comes across as both a relentless crusader for justice and a truly lost soul who has never been able to escape the mystery of his father’s death — a death whose method, motives, and circumstances have been forever muddied through the intervention of powerful people.
It is also the most powerful and effective piece of filmmaking Morris has ever done. The television series format gives the story room to breathe and develop in ways that none of his feature films have ever had; although I saw it (as part of the Chicago International Film Festival) in a single screening, it never once seemed overlong or padded. It’s meticulously paced, giving Morris the opportunity to deploy some of his patented moves — showing us the same narrative with repeated and different endings, and showing the same actions repeatedly from different perspectives and angles — in a way that opens them up and creates a perfect tension and an internal ambiguity. His choice of popular culture references, one of the few weaknesses in his work, are executed with attention and skill, building collages of stock footage and still images that are like a psychedelic mirror of a Ken Burns work. The music is uncredited, but it is perfect for every moment of the film; it is almost surely the work of Philip Glass, or at the very least, a remarkably skilled Philip Glass impersonator. The recreations (though it seems unfair to call them that at this point) are also exquisite; the casting is perfect, and execute all their roles tremendously despite very little dialogue. The period detail is carried out with care, and the pace is so stately that it’s amazing that it never becomes boring; instead, it allows Morris to create a suspense that is downright crushing given that we know what’s going to happen from the first few minutes of the first episode.
Or do we? Ambiguity and the nature of truth have always been the subjects of Morris’ documentaries, but Wormwood throws that fascination into overdrive. To call the events around Frank Olson’s death murky is a world-historical understatement. The commonly accepted narrative — that he was deliberately dosed with LSD, which drove him to paranoia and madness, and that he subsequently threw himself out of a window to end the voices in his head — turns out to be the least sinister and malicious interpretation. Eric Olson is also the exact right subject for the documentary, so relentless that he has taken on the highest echelons of America’s shadow government in his search for truth and justice for his father’s death, but so obsessive that he has essentially given up on living his own life, a quality fixed in the viewer’s mind as the clock in his parents’ kitchen perpetually shows the exact time of Frank’s demise. He lives in his parents’ house, and in many ways he has never stopped being the son who was nine years old when his father left his life. Most importantly, he is painfully aware of all this. Morris escapes the easy accusation in Wormwood that he exploits the lack of self-recognition his subjects have sometimes possessed; Eric Olsen is beyond being tortured by his own tragedy, having transcended it and become both a Hamlet figure and a reader of himself as that figure. He is both hypnotic and repellent, both noble and nihilistic, and Morris simply lets him show us those qualities as he chooses. It’s that rare documentary presentation that is as electrifying as any narrative performance.
There are dozens of more things to love about Wormwood: the gorgeous cinematography by Ellen Kuras and Igor Martinovic; the reminder, as if any were needed, of the fact that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have always been monsters; an extended Hamlet metaphor that not only avoids being clumsy but actually transcends itself; a sense of futility and frustration that is badly needed in these times when we have come to believe that secretive, unaccountable intelligence agencies are our salvation rather than our doom. Errol Morris has done something remarkably similar to what David Lynch accomplished with the return of Twin Peaks: by using a medium in ways he has never tired before, he has not only delivered the ultimate statement of his filmmaking aesthetic and purpose, but managed to show off some new tricks that a director of his age is not often thought capable of learning. It’s his masterpiece, and one that should be watched the minute it goes up on Netflix. From frame to frame, it is literally the work of a lifetime — his and that of his subject.