Even after so much documentary brilliance—like the radical The Thin Blue Line (1988), which got an unjustly convicted man off death row—filmmaker Errol Morris may have been put on this earth just to make Wormwood, his most daring political inquiry. It’s also his scariest and deepest. Calling it the most revelatory documentary about the CIA is too weak as praise; the movie, with terrible timeliness, clues you into the idea that “fake news” has been with us for a while.
Wormwood’s subject is that spookiest of spy programs, Project MKUltra, revealed to the public in 1975 and thus condemned 20 years too late. An illegal Cold War initiative involving LSD and attempted mind control, MKUltra was a reflection of a U.S. terrified by Communism and “brainwashing.” One of the victims of the tests was government scientist Frank Olson (brought to sad life here in Morris’s signature re-creations by Peter Sarsgaard), who leapt from a New York hotel window in 1953 under the influence of drugs. Morris interviews his adult son, Eric, who had been told only that his dad had jumped or fallen.
But the CIA wasn’t counting on the younger Olson, Harvard educated and furious, to spend the rest of his life tugging on the thread of that sweater. Morris drops in clips from Laurence Olivier’s doom-laden 1948 movie version of Hamlet, and a larger tragedy comes into view, over four incredibly absorbing hours, in which MKUltra and meetings with a contrite President Gerald Ford are merely cover-ups for global crimes that make drugging look benign. Wormwood boasts some of Morris’s most accomplished filmmaking—it’s muted and ominous with period details that outdo Mad Men. But when the director puts venerated journalist Seymour Hersh on defense, he’s seeking answers like few have before.
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