Now streaming on Netflix, Errol Morris’s Wormwood might have made a superb two-hour feature—but as it stands, the series (which unfolds in six parts) runs twice that length. It’s still an engaging and sometimes enthralling work, raising provocative questions about CIA conspiracies and how individuals reconcile with national history. Yet it’s also repetitive and padded out, stuffed with stylistic flourishes that add little to the material. Wormwood continues Morris’s investigation into dark corners of modern American history, making it of a piece with The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, and The Unknown Known. It also breaks new ground for the acclaimed documentary filmmaker: Rather than staging brief, silent reenactments of events discussed by his interviewees (as he usually does), here Morris (working with writers Kieran Fitzgerald, Steven Hathaway, and Molly Rokosz) incorporates relatively lengthy dramatic episodes with actors and dialogue. These dramatic passages, though fitfully interesting, ultimately sink Wormwood, adding an unnecessary layer of distractions to an already knotty tale.
Morris’s chief interviewee is Eric Olson, a septuagenarian psychologist whose scientist father died in mysterious circumstances in 1953. The father, Frank Olson, had been employed by the CIA, performing top secret research related to germ warfare. Following a brief period of erratic behavior, Frank (according to official CIA records) either jumped or fell out of the window of New York City’s Statler Hotel. The CIA determined his death to be an accident, but two decades later, they disclosed that Frank had been involved in experiments with LSD and that this probably played a role in his demise. The revelation prompted Eric to look for more information, embarking on a search that would consume the rest of his life. Working with investigative journalists, detectives, and forensic scientists, Eric concluded (though never officially confirmed) that his father was murdered by the CIA because his superior officers believed him to be a security risk.
It takes Morris a long time to reach this conclusion, which might seem obvious to conspiracy buffs from the first episode. In delaying the revelation, Morris conjures up a palpable air of paranoia, circling obsessively around the events leading up to Frank’s death and relating Eric’s decades-long investigation in painstaking detail. One comes to recognize just how much Eric has been shaped by his need to know the facts about his father—in fact Wormwood is as much about Eric’s crippling obsession as it is about the mystery that obsesses him. Morris clearly sees the psychologist as a tragic hero, a decent man consumed by forces of history and conspiracy; the director even compares him to Hamlet, often intercutting his interviews with Eric with scenes from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of the Shakespeare play. By the end of the series, one pities Eric as much as one admires him.
The aforementioned dramatic passages concern Frank, his superiors, and their activities in the weeks before Frank’s “accident,” which Morris shows repeatedly throughout Wormwood. However atmospheric, these scenes do little beyond visualize what Morris conveys through interviews and vintage TV news footage. They also convey Morris’s limitations as a director of actors. Peter Sarsgaard (who plays Frank), Tim Blake Nelson (who plays one of his superior officers), and Bob Balaban (playing a sinister allergist) are all fine performers, but none of them gives a fleshed-out performance in Wormwood. Morris presents his characters much like he presents objects, conveying their relationship to history and the culture they inhabit, but suggesting nothing of their inner lives. As a result the dramatizations fall flat, playing like needlessly extended versions of the cutaway shots to places and things that have been so effective in some of Morris’s other films. It’s frustrating to watch the director botch one potentially compelling sequence after another—by the second or third episode, I began to wish that he hadn’t bothered with the dramatizations at all.
I was bothered by some of Morris’s other aesthetic decisions as well. The excerpts from Olivier’s Hamlet are used gracelessly, and close-ups of text (from newspapers, government reports, and other firsthand sources) feel recycled from Morris’s other films. But the most egregiously distracting element is the director’s use of split screens. Throughout Wormwood Morris employs them during interviews, showing two, four, or six minishots of the same person talking. Whereas other filmmakers have used split screens to convey a multitude of perspectives, Morris just presents multiple versions of the same one, cluttering the frames to suggest a moral complexity that isn’t necessarily there. It’s a pointless flourish, though it’s consistent with the pointless narrative repetitions that drag Wormwood out to four hours.