The latest nice-to-look-at nonfiction Netflix epic, from Errol Morris, delivers an endlessly fascinating story—in 1953, a biochemist named Frank Olson “fell” out of a hotel window in New York but was pretty much without a doubt killed by the C.I.A., having something or other to do with post-war LSD experiments—and then stretches it out to six episodes adding up to four hours, because serialization is what’s hot right now and length equals prestige says Netflix.
Merging moody, fictional recreations (Peter Sarsgaard plays Olson) with Morris’ busied, baroque documentary style (split screens, tangential montage, obliquely framed interview footage, big important music, more) and an endlessly fascinating interview with Olson’s obsessed and eloquent son Eric, it’s Morris juggling all the things he’s good at juggling and totally showing off—”Wormwood” is the “Casino” to “The Thin Blue Line’s” “Goodfellas.”
Not quite as discursive as something like Theo Anthony’s brilliant essay doc “Rat Film” (and much more antiseptic) and not quite compelling enough of a story to justify its length (it is nowhere near as taut or plainspoken or empathetic as “The Keepers”), “Wormwood” ultimately feels like nervy, cinematic filibustering. The Village Voice’s Alan Scherstuhl compared it to “the fervid speculation of a Seth Abramson Twitter thread” and, well, yeppers.
Morris withholds details and doles out information slowly to allegedly maximize impact, a frustrating hustle of “clever” narrative storytelling, especially here where so much of what you find out in the last episode or two is the stuff that really makes your head spin and would make “Wormwood” more compelling if you knew from the jump. So SPOILER ALERT if that sort of thing matters to you—it doesn’t to me and I’d argue that if “Wormwood” can’t sustain these spoilers then it is an all-out failure—but OK finally here we go: Dad’s death didn’t have much to do with LSD, throwing dudes out of windows to kill them was C.I.A. S.O.P. back in 1953, and very famous journalist Seymour Hersh knows what the hell happened basically but can’t tell.
What nevertheless makes “Wormwood” worth watching and why it sticks, though, is that it’s a corrosive exploration of grief. Eric Olson has dedicated his life to figuring out his father’s death and he eventually nearly gets there and it’s not what he thought and he’s not quite satisfied still, or rather his expectations change and suddenly it becomes about accountability and being in this documentary because to stop grieving would probably be impossible at this point, or maybe by the end it becomes about a whole other kind of grieving altogether: For his own life, deferred, while he never quite figured out whatever happened to Dad.
“Wormwood,” directed by Errol Morris, is currently streaming on Netflix.