New Netflix Cold War thriller is an unnerving success

By in Culture

A new Netflix documentary series called Wormwood mixes Cold War intrigue with experimental filmmaking techniques to create a master class in paranoia. The series is based on the highly publicized case of Frank Olson, a CIA scientist who was found dead after participating in Project MKUltra.

In the series, director Errol Morris uses storytelling techniques, including documentary interviews with Frank Olson’s son Eric, as well as cinematic reenactments featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson. After 65 years and no new compelling evidence, Morris’s motives for returning to this story are questionable, but by focusing on Eric Olson’s quest for truth, the series attempts to weave meaning into an otherwise meaningless event.

The event at the core of Wormwood — the death of Frank Olson — occurred in 1953, and the show questions the nature of his death with help from journalist Seymour Hersh. Project MKUltra —  officially sanctioned from 1953 to 1973 — consisted of a series of trials designed to study various methods of psychological torture for use in the Cold War.

Through Eric, Morris begins to discover patterns in the story and mines them for visual motifs and allusions. Much of the look of the documentary is based on Eric’s master’s thesis in psychology on collage. Morris has a knack for taking the little things his subjects care about and giving them importance within the larger context of the story, such as how Frank’s fascination with religious reformer Martin Luther begins to mirror his own conflict with his CIA superiors.

Potentially better suited to a film-length work — not much happens between the first and last episodes — Wormwood runs over four hours in length. It relishes the repetition of events, the painstaking analysis of every possible “what if” and the slow reveal of each new piece of information. These stylistic choices are meant to reflect Eric’s lifelong search for closure, as the series uses this pacing to place the viewer in the mind space of the subject.

By focusing on Eric rather than Project MKUltra, Morris makes the story worth returning to,  giving the narrative a human element and making thematic parallels between the two Olson’s separate crusades against the American Deep State.

By the end of the series, legendary journalist Seymour Hersh also plays a greater role — giving a fascinating interview that is sure to frustrate some, while opening up new areas of speculation for others. Hersh’s interview is perhaps the most interesting part of the show, as he clearly knows the details of Frank’s death but is unable to share them without putting his source within the CIA in danger.

His presence provides just enough detail that it’s easy to reach some conclusions about who exactly Frank Olson was, and Hersh’s delight in the lack of a real ending to the investigation is haunting.

All in all, Wormwood approaches a seemingly impersonal story of Deep State, Cold War drug trials and wisely focuses on the human beings at the centre of the story — a decision that makes the series worth watching.

Cole Chretien

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor