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Wormwood review – LSD, the CIA and the mysterious death of an army scientist

A still from Wormwood
Wormwood is shot beautifully with the 50s sequences filmed like Mad Men. Photograph: Netflix

What is it? Errol Morris probes the mysterious death of a military biochemist in the US in the 1950s.

Why you’ll love it: If you have seen Morris’s dumbfounding documentary Tabloid (2010), you will be aware of his inventive storytelling and stirring command of narrative. In this six-part series, he is given, perhaps, too long to tell us about the suspicious demise of Frank Olson, family man and army scientist who apparently killed himself in 1953.

How he came to plunge from the 10th-floor window of a New York hotel has obsessed his son Eric for more than 60 years. Here, Morris slowly extracts the tale from him, drawing parallels with Hamlet throughout: a son so obsessed with his father’s killing that all other life falls away as he drives himself mad in pursuit of the truth.

While stationed at Camp Detrick, Maryland, in the early 50s, Frank worked on biochemical weapons and a somewhat informal-sounding drug trial that seemed to lead him into paranoia and mental breakdown. Did he throw himself out of that window during a flashback or moment of hopelessness, or were more sinister forces at work?

As subjects go, Eric is a gift: sincere, articulate, thoughtful and with just enough of a sense of drama to inject the necessary theatre into proceedings. “The only way Shakespeare had of resolving Hamlet was to create a bloodbath,” he says ominously in episode two. In episode four, there is even a gravedigger. No kidding.

Morris and Olson take their time over the details with occasional interjections from other contributors. And the whole thing is given life by overlapping dramatic reconstructions in which Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank as a brittle, unhappy figure. It is shot almost obscenely beautifully with the 50s sequences filmed like Mad Men (the marketability of the iconic falling man image isn’t lost on the graphic designer of the titles either) or borrowing the green-bleach visual ennui of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The documentary segments often adopt trippy visual stylings which, rather than distracting from the content, draw you sleepily into it.

Eric’s need to know “what happened in that room” is the constant motif. Twenty years after his dad’s death, he sees in a newspaper that the CIA had been conducting experiments with LSD and that his father had been one of the subjects. Suicide begins to look unlikely.

A reluctant Ford administration does its best to throw off interference, inviting a now adult Eric and his family to the Oval office to receive an official apology for non-specific mishandling of the situation. It is supposed to provide a full stop, but haven’t banked on Hamlet and his unshakeable zeal.

The slow build of information relies less on big cliff-hanger endings, although Morris isn’t immune to them, and more on a creeping sense of muffled horror as the truth lurches into focus.

Morris may keep the plates spinning for an episode too long, but the final conclusion, provided poetically by Eric himself, is like a door slamming abruptly in the audience’s face. The truth of what he says reaches far beyond his own story. A masterpiece.

Where: Netflix.

Length: Six one-hour episodes, available now.

Stand-out episode: The final episode reruns Olson’s story from day one and fills in the uncomfortable detail you have been waiting for. And the last line is exquisite.

If you liked Wormwood, watch: The Keepers (Netflix), The Witness (Netflix).

This article titled "Wormwood review – LSD, the CIA and the mysterious death of an army scientist" was written by Julia Raeside, for The Guardian on Thursday 11 January 2018 06.48pm

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