Wormwood: Errol Morris

In the Biblical book of Revelation, 8:10-11, the end of days reads that “the third angel blew her trumpet and a great star fell from heaven blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water … A third of the waters became wormwood and many people died from the water because it had been made bitter.” In the world of botany, wormwood is labeled “artemisia absinthium” and is defined as a “herbaceous perennial plant with fibrous roots.” It is a bitter plant and an ingredient in the drink absinthe, which can cause death when consumed in quantity.

Wormwood is also the title of the latest film from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. It is a six-part docudrama — I refuse to call it a "series" — about a dark event in the history of the CIA that led to the death of one of its own agents, Frank Olson, in November 1953. Olson died in a “fall” from a 13th-floor window in Manhattan’s Statler Hotel. Wormwood is framed by Morris’ ongoing interview with Olson’s son, Eric, a haunted figure who has spent 60 years trying to unravel the truth about his father’s death.

Eric Olson
Eric Olson

The deeper you get into this 241-minute mystery, the more puzzling yet transparent it becomes — and the more potently the possible truth looms before you. The film, which many have called Morris’ magnum opus, is less a search for enlightenment or truth (a quest that lies at the heart of many of his films) than a deep dive into the unknowability of knowing. (Reference Morris’ Academy Award-winning The Fog of War.)

Since his 1988 feature documentary, The Thin Blue Line, Morris has departed from the tenets of classical documentary cinema and increasingly used techniques of dramatic re-enactment, re-creation and speculation to get to the emotional heart of deeply disturbing stories of human behavior and crime. These fictional-film techniques have not always endeared him to the more traditional documentarians. 

Errol Morris and crew at work on Wormwood.
Errol Morris and crew at work on Wormwood.

Once a private investigator, Morris has become an insistent sleuth, even a Mencken-like muckraker — a self-avowed obsessive who insists on unraveling the warp and woof of the most intricate tapestry of untruth and institutional mendacity.

In 1975, 22 years after Frank Olson’s death, the charnel house of CIA cards began to collapse.

Here is the trailer for Wormwood:

More than any film yet undertaken by Morris, Wormwood blurs the line between classical-documentary and fiction-filmmaking styles. This disruptive technique, which in Wormwood emerges as a masterful, disciplined (even Cartesian) display of cinematic bravado, has always made him not just an outlier in the cozy quarters of documentary film, but a deeply reflective (albeit barn-burning) radical. For this new work, Morris assembled a brilliant cast of actors, including Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Tim Blake Nelson and Bob Balaban, who deliver performances of such truth and conviction that they might rightfully have been considered for the Oscar acting categories. But Morris has never been a team player among his peers, and his reluctance to engage in any activities that have become mandatory in the Oscar-season playbook has made him a company of one.

I have known Errol since A Brief History of Time, his 1991 documentary on the work and life of cosmologist Steven Hawking. We shot the film in London, where I was daily witness to his sometimes flattering, sometimes cajoling, sometimes contentious interviews with the world’s eminent astrophysicists and cosmologists, including Roger Penrose, John Wheeler, Dennis Sciama and Kip Thorne. In the 50 years I have been at the camera for hundreds of interviews, I have never experienced a technique like Errol’s. He is a dogged searcher for that nugget of information that looks to be outside one's casual ken, and he knows how to find gold in a pan of pyrite from the most elusive subjects. In Wormwood, he may have worked the same relentless way, but, more than ever before, he was also able to “script” a probable hidden narrative (or narratives) and embed it in the most arresting images you can find in nonfiction cinema.

Earlier this year, Morris spoke with reporter Jim Braude on Boston’s PBS station KGBH about the key figures in Wormwood and the difficulty of finding truth when you are dogged by factotums hell-bent on leading you down false paths. Although the interview is brief, Morris’ innate skepticism is on full display, as is his puckish delight in questioning himself.

At the Venice Film Festival last fall, just after the Wormwood premiere at Telluride, Morris and his cast discussed their search for truth in a contemporary world of Trumpian “alternative facts.” Morris discusses his approach as "collage" — bits of information pieced together to construct a coherent narrative. The ever-present Neo-Enlightenment philosopher in Morris comes to the fore when he says, “We see the world as a collage; consciousness is a re-enactment of the world inside our skulls.”

This might be just my opinion, but even in a world of auterist fiction filmmakers such as Tarr, Tarkovsky and Haneke, I feel Morris stands alone. In a world of speculative nesting dolls hiding possible truths, he ruthlessly examines it all and then seems to quietly throw himself on Occam’s Razor, making his conclusions seem not just possible, but inevitable.

Released on Netflix on December 15, Wormwood ran afoul of debatable qualifying rules for Academy consideration. A re-edited, chapter-less version did receive a minimal theatrical release (a missed opportunity by Netflix). Each chapter of the Netflix streaming version is framed by head and tail credits. But imagine that the credits don’t interrupt the flow, and set aside the required time to watch it as a continuous film. You will find that the flow is singular and direct. Its world will come to life inside your skull. 

Morris (second from left) with Eric Olson (left) and actors Molly Parker and Christian Camargo at the Venice Film Festival last fall.
Morris (second from left) with Eric Olson (left) and actors Molly Parker and Christian Camargo at the Venice Film Festival last fall.


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