Pick of the Week
The do-it-yourself Paranoid Summer Film Festival will wrap in just a few weeks. For this week’s, we’ll change things up a bit and take a look at a production made for the small screen. This week’s recommendation is fairly recent and genre-busting — Errol Morris’ brilliant Wormwood, the Netflix series from 2017. It’s not a “movie” in the traditional sense, but it is as cinematic a production as you will find, and it’s a major contribution to the conspiracy/political paranoia “genre.”
Wormwood is a documentary of sorts, but probably not like documentaries you’ve seen. The story is about nominally about the mysterious death of Frank Olson, a scientist who apparently worked on a once super-secret government-sponsored project called MKUltra. But Wormwood is a very layered series, and it’s about a lot more than just that, as intriguing as the MKUltra (which was halted years ago) seems to have been.
The mystery here related to the circumstances of Olson’s untimely death. Some aspects of it are clear-cut. Everyone agrees that at some point, Olson fell to his death from the window of his 13th-floor hotel room. But what caused this to happen? That, it turns out, is not at all clear. Was he disoriented because he had secretly been given a powerful dose of LSD? Was it suicide? Was he murdered to cover up something nefarious? All seem to have been possible.
And what of the official explanations for his death? Were these also suspect? Some people came to believe not all was as had been stated. And in fact, the official story changed over the years.
Wormwood is also the story of Olson’s son, who was never satisfied with what he was told about his father’s death and who has spent much of his life trying to uncover the truth, whatever that may be. That aspect of the story is as unsettling as any other element of it and raises a number of emotions.
Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers and his work is always thought-provoking. He’s possibly the best interviewer around, especially when the person being interviewed is prominent and the line of questioning delves into topics that make the interviewee uncomfortable. (Could anyone else have questioned Robert McNamara about his role in the Vietnam War the way Morris did in The Fog of War?)
In Wormwood, Morris uses interviews, recreated scenes with actors, and a wide range of techniques to tell the story. Some people don’t like the way Morris subverts and blends different techniques and genre elements in the series, but I think the series does what it has to do to explore a confusing, frightening, and disturbing events. It doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions it raises, but it’s hard to imagine that any work would be able to adequately answer the deep and probing questions that emerge from Wormwood‘s story. Still, just because answers are hard to pin down does not in any way mean that it’s not worthwhile to ask tough questions. Morris does that admirably here in a compelling and thought-provoking production that is well worth watching.