The Changing View of Man in the Portrait: Errol Morris’ Wormwood

By Lawrence Garcia

On November 28, 1953, Frank Olson, a civilian American scientist and Central Intelligence Agency employee, fell or jumped through a window from the 13th floor of the Hotel Statler (now the Hotel Pennsylvania) in midtown Manhattan. Thus begins Errol Morris’ plunge into the sordid, sensational CIA “mind-control” program known as MK-Ultra, with Peter Sarsgaard’s defenestrated body flailing in slow motion alongside the opening credits, to the tune of “No Other Love” from the 1953 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet. It’s a literally destabilizing overture to what, 11 feature documentaries and one aborted fiction film into his career, stands as Morris’ most exemplary work to date: a six-part, 241-minute portmanteau of images and textures that utilize virtually every tool in the documentarian’s formal arsenal. It’s an obsessive plunge akin to that of Zodiac (2007), filtered through the paranoia of The Parallax View (1974), albeit with a lot of talking heads.

Sold to Netflix by Morris as a cinematic “everything bagel,” Wormwood has a panoptic scope that toggles freely between various forms—direct interview material, fluid informational graphics, re-enactments à la The Thin Blue Line (1988), among others—as it dives into the reverberations of that foundational event. For the Olson family, it would mean two decades of puzzling out an inexplicable suicide—initially attributed to a nervous breakdown—until the Rockefeller Commission’s 1975 investigation into potentially illegal CIA activity revealed a program of LSD experiments in which the drug was tested on unsuspecting subjects, among them Frank Olson. As reported in The New York Times by Seymour Hersh, the narrative of Frank’s death morphed from suicide to CIA negligence regarding the effects of the LSD, with threat of a lawsuit, a $750,000 government settlement, and a formal apology from President Ford himself following not long after.

Jumped or fell—it’s a distinction that would be amusing were the implications less urgent, particularly with regards to the mechanisms of oversight (or lack thereof) for an organization such as the CIA. If an apparent suicide could turn out to be a product of bureaucratic negligence, who’s to say that there wasn’t something far more insidious at play, or that the “experiment suicide story” (as David Kairys, one of the Olsons’ attorneys, phrases it) wasn’t just another cover-up? In particular, Frank Olson’s work as an army scientist at Fort Detrick, Maryland, which entailed research on the aerosolization of anthrax and other agents, becomes a tenuous, but significant link. Did his involvement, coupled with his post-LSD instability, turn him into a security threat? That suspicion, as well as the underlying possibility of murder, lingers through the film, crucially unverifiable—like a mask beneath a mask, to borrow from a psychologist’s assessment of the Olson case. And at the centre of it all is Eric Olson, the family’s eldest son, all of nine years old at the time, who becomes the locus of Wormwood’s dizzying investigative black hole—a tormented search that is very much his own.

Despite its multiplicity—the opening minutes alone dance through five or six disparate textures—Wormwood mainly functions as an act of cinematic portraiture, a mode that Morris has worked in from the start of his career, across a range of subjects. (That’s entirely in keeping with the director’s most well-known technical innovation, the Interrotron, which allows for interviews in which the subject faces the camera and sees the interviewer at all times, preserving a direct frontality and thus suppressing a layer of remove.) But, at the same time, Wormwood constitutes a sustained exercise in distanciation, beginning with an apocalyptic biblical overture (which quotes from the passage in Revelations that gives the film its title) to the sustained stretches of period drama. With its plethora of alienation effects (theatrical staging, split-screens, looped lines of dialogue), as well as its focus on the behavioural science milieu of the Cold War era, these parts of Wormwood resemble the deliberate artifice of Michael Almereyda’s Sarsgaard-starring Stanley Milgram biopic Experimenter (2015).

In his essay “The Changing View of Man in the Portrait” from the 1969 collection The Moment of Cubism, John Berger argues that the decline of the painted portrait and the corresponding rise of photography, aside from being a by-product of the mechanical ease the latter offered, was also a response to the way “the measures, the scale-change of modern life…changed the nature of individual identity”—the recognition of the fact that a “likeness” is sufficient only to “identify…but no longer to explain or place.” (It’s a view implicitly addressed in Morris’ 2016 film The B-Side, in which Polaroid portrait artist Elsa Dorfman asserts her interest not in souls but in surfaces, a repudiation of the de facto psychological insight ascribed to portraiture in general.) With this in mind, Wormwood might be viewed as an attempt to reconcile the individual with no less than the indivisibility of the world—the logical conclusion of Berger’s line of reasoning—an amalgamation of various forms and genres that aren’t just part of, but are Eric Olson’s story.

In many ways, Eric Olson is the ideal Morris subject, not just for his tendency to narrativize the trauma of his father’s death (he describes himself as “a broker of fragments”), but also for his obsessive fervour, which is a true match for the documentarian’s own. It’s Olson who first makes the link between his story and Hamlet, the parallels to which Morris pursues vigorously (and somewhat maddeningly), not least during the belated exhumation of Frank Olson’s remains in an attempt to uncover forensic evidence. And it’s Olson, too—in his role as a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist—who provides the metaphorical shape of the narrative via a formative technique developed in his doctoral thesis as “a sort of antitoxin for psychic trauma”: the collage method. Though the psychological implications would come to him later, Olson initially gravitated towards the physical act of putting together images, largely sourced from magazines. The effect of the resulting work is direct, rough almost—less aesthetically “composed,” say, than the work of Lewis Klahr, and more driven by an immediate, literal process of thought-visualization. (In an early collage of Eric’s, a woman’s face looms over a high-rise building, with a body suspended in mid-air and a broken clock at the bottom.)

If the form of the collage, as Olson contends, serves “as a model of the mind’s fundamental process of representation and symbolization,” then Wormwood acts as its cinematic analogue. Overlapping images and textures recur: a swatch of patterned wallpaper, the diaphanous glow of a curtain. Archival footage flows into staged conversation, uncovered documents and memos into imagined reality. The scripted dramatic sequences, co-written by Molly Rokosz, Kieran Fitzgerald, and Steven Hathaway, are unfixed and abstracted, tenuously suspended between the Brechtian blankness of re-enactment and rigorously stylized fiction. As in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), in which the links between the film’s four principal subjects are never explicitly drawn, there’s an associative fervour in the editing here that creates an amorphous, ever-changing web of connections. Layers of secrecy emerge throughout the saga, mainly with the Colby documents (obtained from the CIA director in July 1975), but also through Morris’ various interviews, such as that with the family’s lawyer Harry Huge, who notes that US law allows the government to be sued for negligent death, but not murder. Information twists and turns, always just out of reach. It’s a fulfillment of the collage structure, which Olson describes as the reconciliation of the maze (a “lattice-work of images…in which one becomes lost or trapped”) and the spiral (quoting from Sartre, the form that allows one to “pass again and again by the same points, but at different levels of integration and complexity”). As with the title card’s amorphous, black-and-white swirl, the overall effect is disorienting, with each scene offering mutable contours of a grand design, localized vortices of a dramatic flow, but never a fixed shape, only an impression of the elusive whole.

If there’s a major flaw to the endeavour, it’s that the authorial tension that might exist between subject and documentarian is obviated by Morris’ over-attentiveness to Olson’s self-interrogation, his undue fidelity to a personal narrative that could be more productively challenged and ruptured, especially given the project’s sprawling canvas. But lest it seem perverse to subordinate the urgent political, historical, and sociological dimensions of the Frank Olson story—questions of surveillance, governmental transparency and accountability, the foundations of democracy—to the impact on a single individual, it’s worth considering Eric Olson’s view of the collage as a medium that negotiates “between collective and individual representations.” It could well be a summation, or at the very least, a corollary to Morris’ recurring interest in such tensions or contradictions, present in something like Tabloid (2013), which alternates between a personal, first-person narrative and a salacious media frenzy, but most evident in both The Fog of War (2003) and The Unknown Known (2013), in which the authority wielded by their respective subjects (former Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld), extends naturally to an exploration of representational scale and power. (A question asked in both, repeated almost verbatim in Wormwood: “Do you feel you’re in control of History, or is History controlling you?”)

Morris’ vision articulates the crux of Berger’s view, the fact that “nothing can contain itself.” A single angle, a fixed point of view is no longer enough. So, Morris abandons the Interrotron for a ten-camera set-up, and the frame itself is unmoored, skipping across various angles in the space of seconds. Structured, metronomic rhythms routinely force the viewer to look beyond the image, allowing for a continual flow between the collective and the individual, crescendoing in entrancing montages, particularly towards the end of the third and fourth episodes, that explode any lingering notions of a fixed, stable portrait. (That Morris ends each of the six parts on such “cliffhangers” is the film’s main concession to the intended episodic form, which was nonetheless edited into a continuous theatrical version—of similar length, with only the episodic interstitials removed—for awards eligibility.)

At its best, the film embodies Olson’s reference to Kierkegaard on the “dizziness of freedom,” its various anxieties—of the Cold War, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era—dovetailing with, in effect, a creative anxiety, an impulse to fill in the gaps of information dredged up by that crux event. The story of Frank Olson is, in effect, one of freedom and control—“mind-control” in the case of the MK-Ultra program—in which facts are as malleable as individual consciousness, and where truth is but a matter of will. The emblematic image is of Sarsgaard reclined beneath a hemispheric glass contraption (related to a paraspychology technique known as a Ganzfeld procedure) in order to “make him think the right [thoughts],” which recalls the enduring image of a pocket watch swinging across the void—an attempt to uncover truth by hypnosis—in The Thin Blue Line.

Uncertainty, unknowability, and the nature of truth are subjects that Morris has revisited throughout his career, specifically in relation to (American) structures and systems of authority. And despite its overt epistemological explorations, conspiratorial tone, and more unconventional trappings, Wormwood still bears the hallmarks of traditional journalistic reportage. But there’s been a marked change as well: the relative certainty of something like the Randall Dale Adams case—built around a clear miscarriage of justice, with a self-evident corrective goal—has been traded in for McNamara’s fog, Rumsfeld’s flurry of memos (nicknamed “snowflakes”), or the recurring image of the sea in The Unknown Known. It’s a shift from thin blue line to churning, Rorschachian haze.

Which brings us back not to Olson but Seymour Hersh, now decades and numerous journalism awards removed from when he first broke the story in 1975. Although an acquaintance of Morris’, on camera he’s irascible and belligerent, not evasive, but certainly not forthcoming. Accused by Olson years back of accepting the provided narrative of the Colby documents and dismissing the possibility of murder, Hersh returned to an unnamed CIA source to uncover the truth, as vexed as that term may be in this context. And he finds it. Disclosure, though, is another matter entirely, and Hersh refuses to speak, because to do so would “turn someone into a Snowden,” the implication being that the information isn’t worth the risk. (Hersh again: “The fact that you can’t get closure in this thing will be of great satisfaction to the CIA…You can mark up one for them, zero for us on this one.”)

So the film ends, irresolute, uncertain, hurtling toward a known unknown, with the finale (aptly titled “Remember Me”) returning to the narrative zero point twice over, presenting a mixed state of possibilities in rapid succession, the doors to Room 1018A of the Hotel Statler still firmly shut. The events of November 28, 1953, the Rockefeller Commission, the Colby documents, Seymour Hersh, etc.—all fold back into the story of a single man, adrift in decades’ worth of speculation. To return to Berger one final time: “Every mode of individuality now relates to the whole world.” And in Eric Olson’s final estimation, it’s all bitter. All that remains, as the closing image of a hotel maid vacuuming the now-empty hallway suggests, is for the details to be swept up into oblivion. Garcia Lawrence