“Even before I had picked this subject, how it was initially sold to Netflix was as ‘the everything bagel’,” Errol Morris explained. It was late on a Friday night, and he was speaking in front of a DOC NYC crowd that had just – for lack of a less roadworn word – binged the entirety of his forthcoming Netflix miniseries Wormwood. The metaphor, which he stressed included “everything but raisins, because I don’t believe raisins belong in bagels,” was that he would combine the tools of fiction and nonfiction film to tell this story: new interviews, archival films, documents, newspaper clippings, drama, and reenactments, “and I see drama and reenactments being very different kinds of things.” The wall between narrative and documentary, which he began poking holes through with his groundbreaking 1988 true crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, would finally just tumble down.
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“I didn’t know whether it would work,” he shrugged Friday. “I didn’t know if combining all of these elements would work. And I should probably let you be the judge.”
I can’t speak for the other judges, but to these eyes (admittedly, those of a Morris admirer from the Thin Blue Line days), Wormwood is a gripping piece of work, thrilling in its formal innovations, audacious in its investigative tendencies, melancholy in its mood. Its subject, at least ostensibly, is the death of Frank Olsen, a CIA-employed scientist who went out of his window on the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel late one night in November of 1953. His family was told he “fell or jumped,” which is an odd explanation. “How do these terms comport with each other?” his son Eric would ask.
Eric was just a boy at the time of his father’s “accident,” but he was an adult in 1975, when the release of the Rockefeller Report on the CIA included details of his father’s work with the agency, and the revelation that he had been dosed with LSD without his knowledge, which could have contributed to his death. President Ford apologized (carefully, and under specific guidance from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, of course) but as time passed, the consistency of the cover story grew shakier.
I should probably leave it at that, plot-wise, because one of the pleasures of Wormwood is the degree to which Olsen’s death becomes a Pandora’s Box, one whose connections and consequences keep getting wilder and wilder. Suffice to to say that by the time Sy Hersh shows up, telling Morris of the film’s central mystery, “I probably know, but I can’t tell you,” it’s become much more than a true crime documentary. It is, at its core, about the question of knowability – and if it’s better to suspect something terrible without confirmation, or to know it for sure.
So, over the course of its four-plus hours, Morris almost imperceptibly changes his subject, from Frank to his (now pushing-70) son Eric, who has spent his entire adult life trying to find out, once and for all, how and why his father died. It’s a life spent pursuing a truth he could probably never really find – and on some level, he probably had to know that. But he kept on anyway. “We don’t actually know,” he confesses at one point. “So what is this about?” Ultimately, it’s about obsession, and its accordant melancholy. Someone took Frank Olsen’s life in that hotel room high in the New York sky 64 years ago – but this is another life that death continues to take.
What’s most impressive about Wormwood is that Morris could’ve easily done it in his established style, made a great documentary, and left it at that. But with the exception of a couple minor flourishes (he still loves the way giant newspaper text looks on a screen, so close you can see the texture of the paper), he jettisons most of what we think of as the Morris Style. The Interretron, his distinctive straight-into-camera set-up, is gone; in its place, he and his cinematographers have shot his interviews with ten cameras rolling simultaneously, allowing him, for effect, to split the screen into two, three, or more pieces. It’s a snazzy aesthetic trick, yes; but it also fits the function of the work, which is like sifting through puzzle pieces, trying to fit them into a picture that makes sense.
So there’s a mastery of his craft, the kind that perhaps can only be attained by doing this as long as Morris has: he knows when to hold a pause, when to flip the style, and how to arrange these elements, both staged and found. The editing is magnificent (the DOC NYC screening presented it in its theatrical form, as basically a long documentary film with an intermission; it will screen in a few markets in that format, simultaneous to its episodic debut on Netflix in December), and he’s always had a stylish visual sense, so the addition of narrative passages makes sense. The only hesitation, early on, is that the documentary sections are so gripping, the dramatic ones can seem a distraction.
But then they start to work, for reasons that Morris made explicit in his post-screening Q&A. “It’s the dramatization of untruth,” he said. “It’s taking you into that world of a contrived story, and bringing it to life in some crazy way. It never made sense to me, it still doesn’t make sense, but it provides that matrix for the movie. And since it is a story contrived by the CIA, and maybe this is some elaborate justification for the movie – and why not, I don’t justify myself, who’s gonna do it – it’s a way of presenting a story in a story, that was both ironic and deeply disturbing.”
The dramatic scenes ape the visual language of a spy thriller, jazzy and moody; editorially, he builds them as an extension of the re-enactments he’s used in The Thin Blue Line and elsewhere, just now with dialogue and name actors. Chief among them is Peter Sarsgaard, who’s ideal for this kind of minimalist, impression-based role; he’s always been an actor who could convey multitudes in a nod, a glance, a line, the little grin-and-bear-it after he confides to his wife, “They’re concerned that I might be a danger to you and the children.”
By the time Wormwood arrives at its bravura conclusion, it’s clear that Morris has created something special here – both the logical extension of his best films, and an electrifying new way of working. In the Q&A, I asked him if he saw himself continuing to create in the “everything bagel” mode, and he responded with the enthusiasm of a film school graduate who was just handed a new 4K camera: “Kinda, yeah! Why not?”
But then he clarified. “Roger Ebert asked me once if I could define the difference between documentary and drama. And I said, ‘Well that’s easy. Two zeros’… I would continue doing this, I have a whole number of ‘everything bagel projects’; the only problem is that they’re very costly. The minute you start recreating the ’50s onscreen, casting actors, creating sets, throwing people out windows, et cetera, the costs ratchet up. But yes, I do wanna do it again. I just need to find those companies willing to pay for it. I’ve developed an expensive hobby! But I kind of love doing it.”
Wormwood debuts in theaters and on Netflix on December 15.