Errol Morris is the Academy Award-winning director behind what has been called the best true crime documentary ever made, Thin Blue Line, about the wrongful conviction of Randall Dale Adams. A year after the film was released, Randall Adams’ case was reviewed, and he was let out of prison. Morris has also won an Oscar for his documentary called The Fog of War.
“It’s a room,” director Errol Morris told PEOPLE of his new Netflix six-part docuseries, Wormwood. “When you boil it all down, there’s a room in this hotel on Seventh Avenue in New York overlooking the old Penn Station. Just after Thanksgiving 1953, Frank Olson, an Army scientist, goes out a window 13 floors onto the pavement below. What happened in that room? What in God’s name happened in that room?”
“All of Wormwood is an attempt to reconstruct that, to reconstruct the mystery of that black box, the four walls of that room and what transpired,” Morris continued. “Was Frank Olson committing suicide, was this an accident or was it something else?”
Morris’ new project blends fiction and investigative work, starring Bob Balaban, Molly Parker, and (one of my favorites) Peter Sarsgaard to reenact key scenes. But it's clear from the trailer that these aren’t going to be the cheesy reenactments we are used to when it comes to true crime. The cinematic scenes are paired with standard interviews and flashes of evidence, as well as archival footage. Morris has likened the style of Wormwood to an “everything bagel.”
The film appears rife with tin-foil hat fodder, as Morris goes deep into the subject of MKUltra, a hallmark of online conspiracy theories. And yet, this particular conspiracy theory holds enormous truth. Morris says that he set out to make a film about MKUltra itself, a 50s era CIA experimental program that used various methods of brain washing and mind control, including dosing mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts, and sex workers with LSD, often illegally. The purpose? For use in torture and interrogation. But as Morris learned more about Frank Olson's story, he decided to make it the centerpiece of his film.
Frank Olson became famous in the 1970s when the national news began reporting that his supervisor at the US intelligence agency had been secretly dosing Olson with LSD just nine days before his death. It was backed up by an official government report.
“It was way different than anything I’ve ever done,” said Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Frank Olson. “The character is in a whole other realm of reality.”
After Frank Olson’s son, Eric, heard about what had happened to his father, he committed himself, with the help of his family, to getting answers. In 2012, Eric made the claim that the CIA had murdered his father, and that he was planning on suing the government organization. He claimed that his father was murdered because he knew too much about the agency itself, and that the murder was covered up as a suicide. They did receive a $750,000 settlement from the CIA, but that didn’t stop Eric’s questions, which he has been asking now for over 60 years.
Morris explained to PEOPLE, “The mystery of the Olson family and their relationships and the mystery of what Frank Olson was doing as a bio-weapons expert — were they using biological weapons in Korea, for example? There’s that set of mysteries… But as Eric Olson says very near the end of the [series], there’s a deep question in all of this: Can democracy survive if the government is engaged in a policy of lying to its own people?”
"Wormwood examines this case from every possible angle, bringing the viewer face-to-face with some of the United States’ darkest secrets," claims Netflix.
Morris has been clear that the case will not tie up neatly in the end, but he does believe that he possesses certain answers. “I believe I know what happened,” Morris says. “Do I know why it happened? I’m not sure.”
Watch the series in its entirety December 15th on Netflix.