It’s not meant as a slight against Errol Morris’ recent films (“Tabloid,” “The B-Side”) to say that the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and UW-Madison graduate has found a subject to sink his teeth into with “Wormwood.”
“Wormwood,” Morris’ best work since the Oscar-winning 2003 film “The Fog of War,” is not just a documentary. It’s an ambitious, six-episode, 270-minute Netflix series that combines documentary filmmaking and fictional scenes featuring actors Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker and Tim Blake Nelson. The series premieres Friday.
“Wormwood” opens with a mystery surrounding a biochemist named Frank Olson (born in Hurley and, like Morris, a UW-Madison graduate). In 1953, Olson jumped or fell out of a Manhattan hotel window to his death. Olson’s death, and especially the key question of whether he jumped or fell, haunted Olson’s son Eric ever since.
In 1975, the CIA revealed that Olson was part of a covert program testing LSD for possible use in biological warfare. Olson’s family is told that he was surreptitiously dosed with LSD during the program, and the acid impaired his mental faculties and drove him to commit suicide.
President Gerald Ford apologized in person to Eric Olson and his family. But there are enough holes in the government’s official story to make Eric wonder if his father was going to blow the whistle on the entire LSD program. Maybe he didn’t jump or fall. Maybe he was pushed.
“Wormwood” weaves together a long-form, wide-ranging interview with Eric Olson along with reenactment scenes featuring Sarsgaard as Frank Olson. Frank seems like a normal guy trapped in a nightmare, unable to trust any of the people around him, unsure because of the LSD covertly put into his system whether anything he sees is real. At one point, he looks through the peephole in his hotel room door and sees himself out in the hall.
Morris has often included visual flights of fancy in his documentaries, but here he’s given the time to run with it, essentially making two movies at the same time. The catch is that the “re-enactments” aren’t necessarily true, but Eric’s suppositions about what his father might have gone through.
In the interview scenes, Eric describes nearly a half-century of frustration in trying to uncover the truth about his father, encountering one government roadblock after another.
In a way, Eric Olson the perfect subject for Morris, who has always been less interested in black and white, and more interested in the gray areas between what we think we know and what we can prove.
It’s also a neat bit of symmetry that Eric Olson’s career is in psychology, using collage art as a form of therapy. Making a documentary is much like making a collage, putting different pieces together to tell a bigger story. Morris has a big collage to work with this time, and he makes the most of it.
Also on streaming: Action star Jean-Claude Van Damme is back, but instead of kicking bad guys he’s kicking his own self-image. The new Amazon comedy series “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” premiering Friday, stars Van Damme as a version of himself, a washed-up action star who somehow gets caught up in a real-life espionage plot. The pilot Amazon released was suitably goofy and self-mocking, especially if you were a fan of “Timecop” or “Double Team.”
Milwaukee filmmaker Kristin Catalano’s 2015 documentary “Clarence” was a heartwarming profile of Clarence Garrett, a World War II vet who went back to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to finish his bachelor’s degree a half-century later. The film was a hit with audiences and got picked up by Indican Pictures for national distribution. If you missed it, it’s now available to rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes and most other pay-per-view streaming services.