The name of the game in Wormwood is “misdirection.” In the busy days before Frank Olson’s death, his handlers somehow found the time to take him to see a magician named John Mulholland (of course a mystery figure in a story about the line between truth and hallucination would have the name “Mulholland”). The official CIA line was that they wanted him to be “entertained,” but Eric knows better. Mulholland was there to distract, just like the various CIA personalities who speak about Olson’s death, both in public (former agency director Richard Helms, who insisted on TV that Olson “agreed to” be a guinea pig) and in private (Ruwet stayed close with Alice Olson, yet admitted during a public congressional hearing that he “did allow her to think things that were not true”). The deeper we get into Wormwood, the more we become convinced that the basic hook of this show was itself a distraction all along.
This was never about the kooky LSD experiments, Eric says — not even about subjects being drugged without their knowledge. That was just the sexy detail to get people interested in his father’s death. Eric even postulates that if Frank did have LSD in his system when he died, the CIA had only planted it as a misdirection, a way to explain what they were planning to paint as suspicious or even suicidal behavior. When the CIA had to fess up to the experiments in 1975, hanging their heads in shame, this admission of guilt was relatively minor compared to what they’d successfully avoided talking about: whether Frank had discovered evidence of germ warfare in Korea, which could have rendered the U.S. culpable in crimes against humanity.
It all starts to make a strange thematic sense, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t be important — true investigations don’t have to come with ironic echoes, and in fact often get distracted by them — but under Errol Morris hits a grand weight of significance. What is germ warfare if not another kind of covert assassination, like what the CIA purportedly carried out on Frank? You unleash an untraceable murder weapon, and later you’re able to paint the whole thing as unrelated to you. And the CIA surely knew revealing the details of MKUltra would be mind-boggling to the public, so was there anything else they were trying to cover up by throwing such a shiny object at us?
Unsurprisingly, Eric is all about these grander theories, because they lend credence to his belief that American intelligence has been secretly aligned in a conspiracy against his family for his entire life. We get the sense that he would likely give up on his hunt through the swampland of biological weapons the instant he came back with anything that decoupled this secret from that of his father. The section talking about his decades-long search for the truth is heartbreaking: the friends and lawyers he’s alienated along the way; the lingering regret he holds that his mother signed the settlement agreement in the ’70s, throwing untold complications into their later legal battles; the collage of photographs from news clippings showing a progressively aging Eric, always engaged in the same fight for the truth. He’s spent the currency of his life on a father who died when he was 9, and has only little tastes of foul play and an exhumed corpse to show for it.
Morris has a tendency to romanticize the quests of the obsessives he profiles, and most of the time he convinces us of their inherent nobility. (Gates of Heaven, about grieving pet owners who seek a proper burial for their animal companions, did a lot to get the ball rolling on mainstream pet pathos.) But he’s best when he reminds us of what gets lost amid such obsessiveness. Eric is in his 70s now, and in all likelihood will die without finding closure. The U.S. government has fought him every step of the way, using every legal curveball in the book to avoid telling him the truth about his father, and they’ve stalled enough so that every key player in Frank’s death has passed. Their ideal outcome is to keep stalling for another decade, or as long as it takes for Eric to pass, too, and with him the final desire to honor his father’s life and work. Frank will thus be remembered only as a casualty of that weird, misguided time in CIA history when they tried LSD, and not as any signifier of larger, more terrifying misdeeds. Deception, irresolution, misdirection, now and forever.
Eric’s victory, such as it were, is the mere existence of Wormwood itself: the fact that Morris was willing to devote this much care and compassion to his version of events, enough to cast Peter Sarsgaard as his father in cloak-and-dagger reenactments, and to imagine different versions of what could have constituted for the truth of what happened that fateful night in 1953. Is victory via storytelling a hollow victory? Morris lets this philosophical question hover in the margins of his work, tantalizingly, thrillingly. In the absence of true closure, this will have to do.
• With one episode to go, we’ve finally been given a plausible explanation as to why the CIA would have been so determined to wipe Frank away. So how much closer to “the truth” can we get from here? How far can Morris take us?
• Ruwet was essentially gas-lighting Alice Olson all those years. Was he doing it out of duty to the CIA, as Eric theorizes? Or did he believe he was acting out of the goodness of his heart?
• The napkin-slipping cliffhanger certainly indicates that Eric and Morris know more about how CIA operatives would have carried out this perfect crime. How much of that scene is grounded in reality?
• Is the CIA using magicians to do their dirty work, like, a normal thing?