The Echo Of Wormwood
America’s prime serious documentarian is Errol Morris, a man who does not merely recount events to a timeline but who brings a profound artistic sensibility to the gradual unfolding of truth. From ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and ‘The Fog of War’ to ‘Standard Operating Procedure’, the story of Abu Ghraib, Morris’s films are mood pieces shrouded in layers of moral ambiguity, and thus reflect life as it is experienced now more than ever. He has spent a lifetime combining his investigative skills with his interest in photography, atmospheres and visuals to create haunting narratives that linger on in the mind.
‘Wormwood’ may lift him out of the intellectual ghetto and bring him his largest audience because it is on Netflix, a better longform platform for his brand of storytelling. Even so, newcomers will be surprised to discover that Morris is less interested in closure than in opening wider debates. With six episodes ‘Wormwood’ requires a deal of curiosity and patience, but the reward, especially in the final episode, is well worth the journey. Morris uses recreations, clips, news footage and interviews to reach the core of a narrative that incorporates Hamlet, LSD, brainwashing, executions and the rewriting of political history.
‘Wormwood’ is the story of Eric Olson’s 64-year investigation into his father’s fatal fall from a New York hotel room window. An army scientist at the height of the Cold War, Frank Olson’s death opened up questions about the US’s hidden role in the world from the 1950s onwards, but it is becoming increasingly relevant to the events of the present day.
Frank Olsen’s death is repeated and changed and repeated, with Peter Sarsgaard playing Frank in moving recreations, and Eric, his real-life son, intelligent, thoughtful and obsessed, explaining what happened since.
One of the key moments of this lengthy, slowly-unfolding meditation on the manipulation of truth comes when Frank’s widow and children are suddenly invited to the White House to receive an official apology from the POTUS. Blinded somewhat by their extraordinary trip to the Oval Office, they later come to realise that they have once more been bamboozled by the state, which stage-managed the trip to determine that the truth will never get out, because the implications of what it exposes are so far-reaching.
The story has a strange echo today, after the parents of Harry Dunn, the boy killed by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US intelligence officer who claimed diplomatic immunity and fled the UK, were suddenly taken to meet Donald Trump. At the White House it seemed the POTUS and his team were keen to pull a reality TV-style stunt on them by brokering a meeting in front of the press with the woman who killed their child (media coverage of which in the US has been overshadowed by the impeachment inquiry.)
Far from being starstruck, the Dunn family resolutely refused to meet their son’s killer, who was in the next room, holding to the position that they would only sit down with Sacoolas with lawyers and other mediators present. They came away deeply unimpressed by Trump’s stunt, and in doing so differed from the Olsen family, whose meeting with Gerald Ford in 1975 led them to believe it was the end of their lost loved one’s journey. The Dunn’s case, and where it goes next, will doubtless be followed by Morris with interest.
‘For me,’ Morris says, ‘truth is about the relationship between language and the world: a correspondence idea of truth.’
The story of ‘Wormwood’ may begin in 1953, but its legacy will continue.