Wormwood: In six parts
December 23, 2017 3:03 PM - Season 1 (Full Season) - Subscribe

In 1953, Army scientist Frank Olson takes a fatal plunge from a hotel window. In 1975, a bombshell report ties his death to a top-secret experiment. (IMDB) A Netflix docudrama.
posted by sylvanshine (12 comments total)
 
So, I haven't read any reviews of this and I'm curious about others' opinions. (IMDB is at 7/10 and I'll link some reviews in the sidebar at right.)

I thumbs-downed it (rare) and tbh I was kind of pissed off by the amount of time it took from viewing something else. Certainly the event is troubling enough, but there just isn't enough to say about it to fill out a six-part series. The show essentially hangs on Frank Olson's son's ability to talk at length, which he is very good at, but the anecdotes aren't that interesting and he repeats himself a lot, which is to say that the editors repeat themselves a lot. (There is one anecdote that I wonder why they didn't leave on the cutting room floor, it's what cutting room floors are made for, made stranger by coming after a pause to reflect; I'm wondering if anyone knows what I mean. Just a weird thing to offer about the exhumed body of one's father. Perhaps because they had 4 hours to fill.)

Next, the actors. You have at least six actors who I recognize, no small feat, and they do something in the "reenactment" genre occasionally. Very polished, but still. I look forward to Peter Sarsgaard whenever I see him but I mean I might as well have played the scientist. I also like Molly Parker, although I'm not sure I've seen her beyond House of Cards, yet I feel like I know her. Same thing.

Now maybe I'm a bad dude for talking about this like it's entertainment, but that's the problem. The topic of the show is disturbing, but of course one ought not write anything critical of the CIA without two VPNs and a burner account. My peripheral research since watching suggests that the family has publicly recounted this loss many times over the decades. They are anything but "incurious", a strange adjective used in the show, and are amazingly composed and well-spoken in public. For me, that's the real lesson here: having great social (and PR) skills lets you tell your story much much better. if this had been my family, we'd be like "hi we don't want to talk about it thank you".

In summary and in conclusion the whole production is a bit of mystery to me and I expect it wouldn't have happened without Netflix's tv-bubble-bucks. I was attracted to the "genre-bending" description and didn't realize it was going to be a documentary when I started, but I don't think that's why it left a bad taste in my mouth. It really could have been a 2-hour thing, which I acknowledge wouldn't have led to the trickery that made me watch it—the trickery of it appearing to be a genre-bending (fictional) six-part Netflix series when I started.

As the final credits rolled, it occurred to me that the most interesting thing here would be if they embedded clues about Olson's fate in the show itself. Seymour Hersh Knows What Happened. Redditors unite or something.
posted by sylvanshine at 3:38 PM on December 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm seeing now that this is directed by one Errol Morris, a name which means nothing to me, but apparently justifies the production.
posted by sylvanshine at 3:57 PM on December 23, 2017


I'm seeing now that this is directed by one Errol Morris, a name which means nothing to me, but apparently justifies the production.

It's worth checking out The Thin Blue Line, which is one of the best documentaries ever made, and Fog of War, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
posted by bluecore at 4:10 PM on December 23, 2017 [5 favorites]


Will do, thanks. The lineage of this work explains what I called the "mystery" of its production. This film is much easier to understand when it is known that it ran theatrically for 240 minutes and is by an important documentarian.

One of the "advantages" of posting one's own thoughts before being influenced by any of the context of the work is that you get to be in a minority of opinion and appear to be criticizing some big-name director, oh dears. In response to this I'd like to say that Elliot, son of Mr. Robot, also hated The Martian, and we all love Elliot.

To illustrate my point about all those actors with nothing to do, well, production has a sort of contract with the viewer that when you see a recognizable actor, they will be used in a thoroughgoing way. At least this contract exists in the form in which I viewed the film—six parts on Netflix. I just remembered that John Doman appears here in literally one scene (which I thought I better verify before stating), which further added to the confusion. So the actors are all there because of the director glow—that explains much.
posted by sylvanshine at 5:06 PM on December 23, 2017


I'm watching it now and enjoying it immensely, so I guess YMMV. Netflix has apparently created a podcast intended to be a deeper dive into the investigation. Three episodes are already up. (iTunes link).

In that scene with John Doman, the two interrogators make some reference to someone "Hoover must have hated," but I I still can't catch the name on repeated rewinds of the scene. Anyone know who they're talking about?
posted by emelenjr at 4:53 AM on December 24, 2017


sylvanshine: (There is one anecdote that I wonder why they didn't leave on the cutting room floor, it's what cutting room floors are made for, made stranger by coming after a pause to reflect; I'm wondering if anyone knows what I mean. Just a weird thing to offer about the exhumed body of one's father. Perhaps because they had 4 hours to fill.)

Um, yeah. That was an odd thing to say—and an odd way to say it—about his dad.
posted by emelenjr at 5:01 AM on December 24, 2017


In that scene with John Doman, the two interrogators make some reference to someone "Hoover must have hated," but I I still can't catch the name on repeated rewinds of the scene. Anyone know who they're talking about?

"Duggan... State Department"-- presumably Laurence Duggan.
posted by bluecore at 9:06 AM on December 24, 2017 [1 favorite]


Errol Morris is a national treasure; both his movies (A Brief History of Time is another peak of documentary filmmaking) and his TV work (First Person was a mostly amazing series of half-hour shorts). But...my roommate and I both thought the first episode of this one was extremely thin and stretched far beyond what the material needed. Not sure if I'll continue, which is weird because the subject matter should be fascinating.
posted by mediareport at 4:57 AM on December 26 [1 favorite]


The extended temporal component is deliberate, I think. Morris is here trying to convey the way the family’s understanding of the story he is investigating has changed, albeit glacially, over the years. First there’s the official story of an unexplained suicide; then there’s the replacement narrative about an experiment gone out of control — a government scandal and cover-up. Eventually we end up looking at a full-on state-sponsored political execution. Yeah, Morris could have told this story in a brisker 2-3 hours, but I don’t think we’d get the same sense of the enormity of the deception, or of the amount of time and energy the poor guy’s son has invested in finding some kind of answer.

(There is one anecdote that I wonder why they didn't leave on the cutting room floor, it's what cutting room floors are made for, made stranger by coming after a pause to reflect; I'm wondering if anyone knows what I mean. Just a weird thing to offer about the exhumed body of one's father. Perhaps because they had 4 hours to fill.)

What? No, that’s the opposite of cutting-room floor material — a sad but revealing anecdote that illustrates the mournful awkwardness of the whole situation. Morris loves that kind of detail. That’s where the humanity of the story lives.

This is probably my favorite Errol Morris film since Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
posted by Mothlight at 4:39 PM on December 30


I finished watching this last night, and I too felt that it was too long, and yet it left me with a number of questions! Mostly about LSD.

SPOILERS:

We're told that the idea that Olsen was dosed with LSD was a CIA cover story to hide the fact that the U.S. was using bioweapons in Korea and that the CIA conducted extrajudicial executions of dissidents in the U.S. Ok!

But wait I still want to know about the LSD!

Was the CIA dosing Frank Olsen? Was that part of MK-ULTRA, or was it something else? I kind of got the idea that they were in fact dosing Olsen, as part of an interrogation technique and perhaps in order to discredit him as mentally unstable, but i found it unclear.

What was MK-ULTRA? Was it real, or was the whole thing a smokescreen? What did the CIA do with LSD?
posted by chrchr at 4:31 PM on January 4


I thought it was really great. I particularly enjoyed the parts that touch on how and why we know things, how we turn facts into narratives, and the human fallibility inherent in that. A lot of the flourishes like the repetitions (both of individual lines and within the re-enactments) that aren't quite the same, all the references to Hamlet, and the way the story being told suddenly shifts multiple times as it goes on all drive home those ideas. It's a tiny thing, but I particularly enjoyed the bit where Morris quotes a line from a movie, and then immediately follows that with the scene from the movie itself, but the line is subtly different. The truth as he has constructed it, even on something incredibly trivial and unrelated to the story of the Olsons, is distorted and not entirely accurate, while at the same time the fully accurate quote would have been worse in that situation than what he actually said.
posted by Copronymus at 10:29 PM on January 4 [1 favorite]


For my money this is an enormous waffle-fest. We watched three episodes last night on my partner's insistence, and I nodded off through all three. I'd say it would possibly make a good two-hour doco.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:51 PM on January 7


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