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The Unknown Known would have been an ideal title for Errol Morris’ epic exploration of the thicket of sinister politics that infects his new work but, unfortunately, it was already used — by Morris himself for his 2013 documentary about Donald Rumsfeld. As it is, Wormwood carries insidious connotations dating back to the Hebrew Bible, as the title pertains to a curse and bitter eventualities. This import more than applies to the obsessive odyssey pursued by the son of an army scientist to get to the bottom of his father’s death, which is he convinced came at the hands of the CIA.
Debuted in its 258-minute entirety at the Telluride Film Festival and set to bow in six installments on Netflix on Dec. 15, this staggering, sometimes daunting work mixes documentary and dramatic approaches to go deep and wide in its attempt to establish what is probably unknowable, which in turn leads the film into rarified philosophical and metaphysical territory. For conspiracy theorists, Cold War buffs, murder mystery fans and anti-government agitators of all persuasions, this is red meat, pure heroin, a Philip K. Dick wet dream.
Morris’ breakthrough feature, The Thin Blue Line, in 1988, used dramatic re-creations within a documentary format to successfully argue the case for a convicted murderer’s exoneration. Here, the quest is reversed, in an attempt to convince, if not prove, that the death of biochemist Frank Olson on Nov. 28, 1953, on the sidewalk outside his Manhattan hotel was, in fact, a government-ordered murder rather than a “fall or jump,” as it was first described, from his 13th floor window.
The dead man’s son Eric, who was 9 at the time of his father’s death, is an ideal Morris subject — brilliant, articulate, driven and justifiably paranoid. Armed with glittering Harvard credentials, he sacrificed a successful career as a clinical psychologist to pursue a quixotic search for the truth in face of all-but-impossible odds posed by the agency and affiliated governmental bureaucracies expert at establishing denials, roadblocks, delays and obfuscations to create a virtually impenetrable fog of uncertainty.
Via clips from the Laurence Olivier film (with its considerable fog), Morris wittily uses Hamlet’s quest to avenge his father’s murder as a touchstone for his stylistically splintered, deliberately repetitious brief. The images come fast and furiously, multiplied via split screens again and again, and from an abundance of angles, causing further confusion to grow from the sheer number of possibilities.
Reproducing a plausible recurring nightmare of the son, Morris serves up slow-motion shots of a flailing man in pajamas crashing through a hotel window at night and plummeting toward the pavement. It’s the central image of the film, and one that crystallizes the obsession that has defined Eric’s life: Did his father fall or jump? Was it suicide or did someone push him? It seems certain we’ll never know for sure, but by the end it’s pretty clear what we ought to believe.
Working from the true paranoid’s premise that “all our worst fears are true,” Morris then spends well over four hours trying to prove his case in a style so distinctively his own that he could virtually patent it at this point. Backed by a constantly churning and sometimes quite beautiful score by Paul Leonard-Morgan, the film, much in the manner of an obsessed researcher, churns over the same material and evidence again and again, examining it from different angles, with increasing thoroughness, always with deep suspicion.
The molten lava core of the story is the filmmaker’s intensive and repetitive interview with Eric Olson, an extremely articulate deep thinker who, over the hours, meticulously expresses all he’s thought and learned about the case and what he’s done to push to the ever-receding goal line of a true explanation for his father’s demise.
We observe Olson talking with the filmmaker in various settings, shot from ever-changing angles to avoid visual boredom, and Morris has raided archives to put up all sorts of footage, from the Cold War and beyond, to illustrate the story.
Sporadically stirred in are staged “fictional” scenes featuring Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson, Molly Parker as his wife Molly and Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban, Christian Camargo, Scott Shepherd and Jimmi Simpson, among others, as assorted CIA hands who worked with Olson. From the sinister mood Morris summons up in these scenes via the shadowy lighting and menacing line readings, there can be little doubt as to what the film is suggesting about their ultimate intentions.
The steaming concoction simmers under a low fire until the pivotal moment comes when, at a Company retreat, LSD is administered in a drink to an unknowing Olson, who shortly goes into a depressive stupor. At length, Olson holes up with colleagues at the Statler Hotel in Manhattan and eventually find himself sailing through the dark night toward the street, an event staged in a variety of ways so as to allow any perspective on the incident.
A short account of the film’s events cannot really begin to suggest the vast range of sources and techniques the obsessive Morris summons to his cause, nor the semi-trance-like mood he casts over a very long stretch. Watched in one go, as the audience did for its single screening at Telluride (there was one intermission), the film hadn’t fully created a spell after three episodes, at which point a fair number of people left; whether a large television audience will stick with it up to and past the midway mark remains an open question. For viewers unfamiliar with Morris’ work, Wormwood will be weird.
However, as the vice tightens through the elder Olson’s death and the aftermath, both the narrative drama and, even more, the story of the survivors’ quest for the truth accelerate, making the power of Morris’ distinctive approach fully felt; having come this far, it will be hard for viewers to pull themselves away during the second half of this epic.
Partly this is because of admissions of malfeasances (if not guilt) on the part of the CIA, as well as a personal apology for Frank’s death delivered by President Gerald Ford to the Olson family in the Oval Office. All the same, there was no admission of responsibility or guilt. But the capper comes with peppery comments by the ever-scintillating investigative reporter Seymour Hirsch, who, spurred by Eric, appears to have gotten as close to the bottom of the case as anyone is likely to. And yet …
What ultimately gives this elliptically sprawling work a stature well beyond that of a carefully pieced-together investigative study is its acknowledgement of the void, the elusiveness of knowledge that always seems just beyond reach. But then there’s a level beyond that: What if Eric Olson, after several decades of frustration, were to learn the definitive truth about his father’s death? What would it change? Would it have been worth essentially putting aside his own life to finally know that the CIA had killed his father? Eric’s answer is chilling and sobering, as is the unknowability of matters both quotidian and cosmic.
Production: Fourth Floor Productions, Moxie Pictures
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker, Christian Camargo, Scott Shepherd, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Chernus, Jack Doke, David Kairys, Jimmi Simpson, Stephen DeRosa, Hilary Gardner, Chance Kelley, Jack O’Connell, Adina Verson
Director: Errol Morris
Screenwriters: Steven Hathaway, Molly Rokosz
Producers: Sean Fogel, Steven Hathaway, Julie Bilson Ahlberg
Executive producers: Adam Del Deo, Peter Friedlander, Lisa Nishimura, Errol Morris, Robert Fernandez, Caroline Baron
Directors of photography: Igor Martinovic, Ellen Kuras
Production designers: Tommaso Ortino, Meredith Boswell
Costume designer: Catherine Riley
Editor: Stephen Hathaway
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
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