Watch TV: “Wormwood” Is a Cold War Acid Trip

Watch TV: “Wormwood” Is a Cold War Acid Trip December 20, 2017

Wormwood tells us the 50s were all about paranoia, secret government drug experiments, and germ warfare. Yep, times were simpler then.


If you’re not watching the documentary miniseries Wormwood on Netflix, you’re missing out on a disturbing trip through the mangled psyche of Cold War America. The first episode starts by showing Frank Olson, a family man and biochemist working on a top-secret Army program, plummeting to his death from a New York hotel window in 1953. His family was told it was an unfortunate accident, and not until twenty years later did they learn that Frank had been given LSD as part of an extremely secretive government project. Frank’s son dedicates himself to finding out the truth, but it may involve even more sinister factors than he can imagine.

Foul Deeds Will Rise

Filmmaker Errol Morris is famous for documentaries like Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War in which he acts as a cinematic sleuth, not only unearthing facts about historical events but also interrogating the cultural context of these matters. In Wormwood, he uses the Olson incident as a lens through which to observe a military-industrial complex run amok, whose ability to exert control and impose secrecy over its activities amplified the horrific nature of the activities it could envision. The brutal Korean War, and paranoia about Communism, became the pretext for developing technologies to control individuals, society, and information. It becomes clear in the course of the miniseries that even the LSD revelation was a distraction. Olson may have been punished for having ethical qualms about the programs he was involved in: developing technologies dealing with biological warfare, interrogation and brainwashing.

For all that, there’s precious little conspiracy-mongering here. Eric Olson, now an old man whose need to know the truth about his father consumed his life, still seems sensible and good-natured for a man who has been down the rabbit hole of government stealth and deceit for as long as he has. For all of Morris’s overt references to father-avenging Hamlet, Eric comes off as a Pynchon protagonist, a regular guy making his way through a meaningless series of signs, for whom every new bit of information complicates rather than clarifies the matter. The confusion and anxiety that characterize his quest seem like an LSD trip too.

Then Is Doomsday Near

Amid the interviews and archival footage, we see re-enactments of Olson’s last days in which a saturnine Peter Sarsgaard plays him as sacrificial lamb. These speculative scenes recall David Lynch as much as film noir; one of the bad guys has a pronounced stutter. The image of Olson falling through the air in his final moments echoes his son Eric’s descent into the mire of post-Watergate denial about intelligence agency skullduggery.

The pacing may be slow (the six episodes run four hours in total, which must have made it an ordeal for people who saw it in the theater), but the vision of Wormwood is fascinating. Morris uses multiple cameras in his interviews, suggesting the multifaceted nature of the subject at hand. Eric Olson became a psychologist and collage artist; appropriately, Morris fills the screen with images from newspapers, words from dossiers, family photos and home movies, and shots from Olivier’s film of Hamlet, arranged in a way that demonstrates how incongruous contexts alter our knowledge. Eric’s ongoing odyssey never fully succeeds (though the entrance of investigative reporter Seymour Hersh provides a tantalizing possibility of resolution), but Morris has dug up a lot of truths about our government’s use of scientific and technological progress in the service of destruction and control.

Has anyone else been watching Wormwood?

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  • MystiqueLady

    Thanks for this review! I think I’ll check it out.

  • CindyTellsMe

    I’m a big fan of Errol Morris, his remarkable vision enhances the stories that he tells and this is no exception. There’s a lot of insight here into the early years of the CIA not to mention the great journalism that’s been done over the decades to expose their appalling methods. A chilling look at the ‘dark state’ that makes me wonder what they’re up to lately.

  • uzza

    Does the word “bio-terrorism” ever come up in this movie?

  • CindyTellsMe

    I don’t remember any form of terrorism mentioned, it was ‘biological warfare’ and ‘biological weapon’ back in the day.

  • JSloan

    I am bewildered as to why Shem’s articles appear in the “Nonreligious” category of Patheos. Articles in Nonreligious generally deal with skepticism and pointing out the absurdities, fallacies and hypocrisies that go on in the religious world. Shem’s articles don’t address any of these issues.

  • There’s more to secular life than religion-bashing, that’s all. If you want to play slap-the-fundie all day long, there’s no shortage of places you can do that at this site. And no group has a monopoly on absurdities, fallacies and hypocrisies in this day and age.

  • JSloan

    Your articles really have nothing to do with secular issues either.

  • Of course they do. I’ve written about beliefs we have about science, history, ethics, and philosophy. Aren’t those secular issues?

  • JSloan

    Your articles on science are poorly-researched alarmist rants apparently written by someone who is quite unfamiliar with scientific research and how it is conducted. Your articles about history, ethics and philosophy would be better suited to site dedicated to philosophy.

  • I’ve got my blog, you’ve got your opinion.