The engrossing, maddening finale of Wormwood transforms at the 11th hour, from a CIA investigation to a referendum on the journalistic ethics of Seymour Hersh. Hersh is the veteran New York Times and New Yorker reporter who has haunted this story since its inception, the man who lit the original spark by pronouncing the Olsons, in 1975, “the most uncurious family in the United States.” Now he sits down in front of the camera to tell Errol Morris a strange thing: He knows the truth, and it’s juicy, but he can’t share it. Stay uncurious, America.
This seems a deeply bizarre and disingenuous thing for a journalist of Hersh’s stature to say. We’re talking, after all, about a man who made a career out of poking official government accounts, whose biggest investigations — from the 1969 uncovering of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam that won him a Pulitzer Prize to his 10,000-word claim that the Obama administration’s version of Osama bin Laden’s death was a lie — also both relied on anonymous sources and made no apologies for revealing secrets that were potentially harmful to national security. Now, all of a sudden, he gets cold feet about a 60-year-old story where all of the participants are dead? Hersh claims he’s protecting his source, yet he’s still willing to all but confirm Eric’s account of events on camera. None of this makes sense. Is he trying to play God so he can have the final word on the story, or just milling about for attention as he’s wont to do? Or does he think he’s actually doing Eric a favor after so many decades of them circling the same story together?
It’s clear Morris and Hersh feel some sort of kinship as truth-seekers, and the filmmaker has built on the journalist’s work in the past: Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’s 2008 documentary about Abu Ghraib, obviously wouldn’t exist without Hersh’s 2004 exposé on the subject. Yet when they’re actually facing each other, Morris avoids pressing Hersh on just how far his loyalty to the truth extends.
Usually when a creator who works in nonfiction calls themselves a “storyteller,” it’s code for wanting the respect and attention of a journalist without having to uphold the same ethical standards. In Morris’s case, though, being a storyteller means he’s drawn to irony and uncertainty like a moth to a flame. This creates a counterintuitive game of chess: Hersh thinks the director is looking for a neat little “bow” to wrap the story in, and presents his refusal to grant this request as the reality of a cruel world where things don’t always work out nicely. Yet leaving the mystery of Frank Olson’s death unresolved is exactly the kind of ending Morris would love to embrace: “a vault inside of a vault inside of a vault.” Perhaps because of this, he’s reluctant to push back at what could be the rare opportunity to get an actual answer when it’s staring him in the face.
In our final dramatic reenactments, we get two versions of that elusive truth of the hotel room: one where Frank, confronted by the CIA’s hired goons, smashes the window himself and jumps out of it; and another where he is attacked and then pushed out. It seems pretty clear that if these are the two most likely versions of the truth, then the original distinction between murder and suicide no longer has much currency next to the likelihood that Frank died because he knew too much (about biological warfare, or anything else). This is why Eric no longer seems to care about the specifics of those nine days between his father’s drugging and his death, because they pale in comparison to the years leading up to it. Upon reflection, it’s remarkable Eric is still devoted to any of this, given that Hersh told him point-blank in 2014 that he wasn’t going to file a follow-up story on his father’s death. (Of course, Hersh also mused to Morris that maybe he’d do so sometime in the future.) Is Eric hoping for some last-ditch reprieve to be spurred on by the publicity of Wormwood? Some final moonshot bid for someone, anyone, to come forward with the truth?
Eric knows by now that no easy resolution is coming. The fact of that night has been distorted beyond recognition, and the tragedy is that Eric is the one who had to do the distorting, because otherwise it would have been forgotten a long time ago. Hersh is right about one thing: The Olson case is a “win” for the CIA, because they didn’t want to tell anyone what happened, and now they won’t have to. But they can’t stop Eric from spiraling ever downward in his quest. After a certain point, obsession becomes the drug.
• Here’s “Remember Me” from Coco. You know you were singing it.
• We returned to the man-falling-out-the-window title sequence for the final episode to highlight the different ways we’ve come to view this event. But I still prefer the distorted black-and-white credits from the other installments.
• Props to the uneven kerning on the graphics throughout the series, which lent another layer of drug-fueled uncertainty to the investigation.
• Morris handled his show’s bait-and-switch exceptionally well, and knew precisely when to shift our attentions from LSD to larger, more sinister questions. Tim Blake Nelson was woefully underutilized, though.
• Thanks for following these recaps. All in all, Wormwood was a fun ride, though I imagine Netflix fans who only started watching it for its true-crime and espionage elements will be disappointed. Documentary cinema needs figureheads like Morris to push the medium forward, to try new experiments even when they fail (as I’d argue the fictionalized scenes did here), and to resist temptation to deliver “results” over nuance. Just as long as they don’t become too enamored of the nuance that they forget to check under every rock.