Errol Morris Digs Deep into History in New Miniseries 'Wormwood'

Errol Morris - Getty - H 2017
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Produced for Netflix, the series from the Oscar-winning documentarian explores a 60-year cover-up by the CIA.

In his new six-part miniseries, Wormwood, master documentarian Errol Morris digs deep into circumstances surrounding one man’s incredible, decades-long quest to uncover the truth surrounding his father’s mysterious death.

The new series, which premiered this fall in Venice, is out now on Netflix.

Morris follows the journey of Eric Olson, who spent his life trying to get to the bottom of what really happened to his father one fateful night in 1953. The elder Olson was a bacteriologist and biological warfare specialist working who plunged to his death after being given LSD by the CIA. In what initially looked like an accidental suicide at the result of being drugged, the actual story is slowly revealed to be much, much darker.

Frank Olson, played in reenactments by a wonderfully subtle Peter Sarsgaard, became increasingly distraught over the CIA’s use of biological weapons used in the Korean War, as well as over the CIA’s nefarious interrogation methods and its MK Ultra program, which used drugs, including LSD, in an effort to induce mind control. When the expert scientist questioned his own contributions to the CIA's methods, he quickly became a government liability. And, as Morris connects the dots, it’s not difficult to see how the CIA would take matters into its own hands to deal with him.

Wormwood has all the makings of the perfect Errol Morris story: an intelligent, obsessive protagonist, a deep-seated government cover-up, a constantly evolving murder mystery, and a watchful, hard-hitting eye toward uncovering history’s lasting truths. We spoke to the documentary master in Venice on the story relevance to politics today and why he strives to be "an annoyifier" with all his work.

There are so many CIA stories that have not been explored in depth. Why did this particular story deserve the Errol Morris treatment?

Of course it’s a CIA story. Who would argue otherwise? But I think there are so many aspects to this story. It’s a father-son story. It’s a detective story, an epic detective story that spans more than 60 years. And to be sure, it’s a story about government lying and deception. There’s a lot of stuff in this particular story.

What made you do it as a miniseries instead of a feature- length documentary?

The most obvious answer is, I had Netflix. It provided a much broader canvas to work with. And I like it. I really, really like it. I’d like to do more of it.

There is something about not having these…now they almost seem like artificial restraints. You know you are doing television and television without advertising. This again is something different and welcome.

I think the story needed a broader canvas. One size doesn’t fit all. The opportunity to explore these various characters, the ability to mix all of these diverse elements in a story, the shorter it gets, the harder it gets to pull something like that off.

Korea is a big part of the story. Did you know that was going to be so relevant today?

I’m reminded endlessly of how disconnected we are in America —maybe this is true all over the world, but I live in America— how disconnected we are from history. How we just don’t see very much of anything. What is amazing to me as I started working through a lot of the material in the story is how unbelievably violent North Korea was and how little is said about it. Meaning now it’s starting up again but we know nothing about the Korean War.

It was an incredibly violent war on both sides that almost ended up as a nuclear confrontation. Douglas MacArthur was removed by Truman because of the fear that it would escalate into a nuclear war and that he’d expand it into a war with China. I had always assumed that napalm was Vietnam, if you think of the various weapons of American wars in the past; we dropped more napalm on Korea than we did in Vietnam. And…we forget.

All of these fears, these deep American fears in the fifties and sixties, it’s The Manchurian Candidate, the person who has been mind controlled and brainwashed, of which MK Ultra and these clandestine CIA programs were so much a it’s various kinds of strange sleeper cells and Islamic indoctrination of one kind or another. What is so odd just is history is ignored and endlessly repeats itself in one way or another.

What would you say to leaders today?

We forget that the war was…I don’t want to use the word unnecessary. I remember being shocked, I found this deeply shocking. I’m friends with Josh Oppenheimer who did The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. I wrote about those movies and in writing about them I found a passage in Robert S McNamara’s book, In Retrospect, and he talked about this genocide in Indonesia basically where perhaps as many as 1 million Communists were killed. The CIA were involved in this as well. And McNamara says, in passing almost, "You know we killed so many Communists in Indonesia the dominoes were never going to fall in Indonesia so perhaps the Vietnam war was unnecessary." If the logic was you are preventing the dominoes from falling across East Asia, maybe it was unnecessary.

And I think to myself, unnecessary? Unnecessary? You are talking about one of the worst debacles in American history, the death of millions of people, 50,000 Americans. Do I think that war is necessary? Maybe in some instances, I don’t want to generalize, but I think in many instances it is not necessary and some means have to be found to avoid it.

We see literal government brainwashing in the series. What relevance does that have today?

Did people ever see what the truth is? Truth isn’t something that is handed to you. It’s interesting that Trump pontificates about fake news. What’s evil about it, and I do believe it’s evil, is that news isn’t absolutely truthful, and truth isn’t just given over to us. We pursue truth, we investigate this, that and the other thing. What is so nefarious about it is his assumption that writers for the Washington Post or the New York Times are deliberately, consciously, falsifying the news, as if there is a kind of journalistic conspiracy against him. It’s a kind of nightmare, a real nightmare that we are living in, and a very frightening nightmare.

What do you remember about interviewing Trump on his favorite film, Citizen Kane?

Well this is 15 years ago, this is interviewing Trump in 2003. Trump for almost everybody was a joke, a freak. I am endlessly fascinated by cluelessness, self-deception, people who have no idea who they are or what they are saying. What has happened in America is unthinkable. It’s unthinkable, but it’s real. I have that line, I ask him at the end, "Do you have any advice for Charles Foster Kane?" And Trump says, "get yourself a different woman." As if somehow this is something that could be easily resolved through divorce and remarriage. He blames a woman.

How does this series fit into your body of work as a documentary filmmaker?

I think at heart I’m a contrarian. Maybe I’m an "annoyifier" as my son once described himself at six years old. "Dad, don’t you know I’m an annoyifier?" Gates of Heaven was a contrarian idea, because when it came out, a thousand years ago, there was a prevailing style of nonfiction, of documentary, call it direct cinema, verite, whatever, but it was this idea of available light, handheld camera. And Gates of Heaven broke all those rules and tried to do something different.

The Thin Blue Line put in, they called them re-enactments, but visualizations of alternatives. What is ironic is they are used in court now. People say, "Well it could have happened this way, it could have happened that way. We’ll show it to you to help you visualize what the alternatives might be." But it was endlessly criticized. There’s a kind of well-known story about how when it was presented to Academy viewers for Oscar voting, they just turned it off immediately, saying: "This is not a documentary. We don’t know what this is." Now you see it everywhere. Well, the style of Thin Blue Line has been endlessly copied.

What is great about documentary is you get to reinvent it every time you do it. And this is an attempt to reinvent documentary. What is documentary? Documentary isn’t style per se, it isn’t a rule that you use this style or that style. At the heart of it is you are examining the real world. You are trying to say something about whatever is out there. You are trying to say something about reality.

Was it true that the CIA killed Eric’s father: true of false? Was it true that Eric’s father was a dissident and was seen by the CIA as a risk to America as a whole during the Cold War? So you are examining something that is true or false and trying to understand it more fully.

And anything you bring to bear, to me, is fair game: drama, re-enactment, archival material, interview, you name it. There should be nothing really that’s off-limits in the pursuit of truth. It’s all fair game.