Binge-A-Thon: Wormwood

Netflix’s Wormwood is a fascinating, strange, and not entirely satisfying docudrama. Which is appropriate, as the story that it’s telling is fascinating, strange, and not entirely satisfying.

Having said all that, I will confess it it was ultimately worth watching, and I would suggest you might enjoy it even if, unlike me, you don’t already know most of the story.

It’s the story of Frank Olson who, in 1953, died after falling from a 10th floor window. He also may have been given LSD as part of CIA experiments prior to his death. He also may have been murdered by the CIA. The mystery surrounding his death is what ultimately makes the story so compelling.

I knew a lot of the story going into this. I actually read quite a bit about this story this year while reading Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare At Goats. Ronson’s a great writer, and a fantastic storyteller, so he managed to tell the story of Frank Olsen and his son Eric — which are the focus of Wormwood — in a really fantastic way. So by the time I came to experience the story again in this docudrama, I found myself frequently thinking, “Okay, I know this, can we move on?” Especially because the series takes its time telling the story, trying to build suspense and mystery, doling out new information only when absolutely necessary.

Another thing that has a tendency to drag the story down a bit is that this isn’t just a documentary. It’s also a docudrama. It’s equal parts interview and re-enactment. So quite frequently, after hearing a particular story, you’ll see the story play out in front of your eyes, with actors playing the parts of the people you’ve just heard about. This is a tricky thing, and it’s not one I think entirely works, because we occasionally see things that we could never verify as being 100% correct, but the fact that it’s being shown alongside legit interviews with real people gives these moments a sense of legitimacy that I don’t think is entirely earned.

To be honest, I think it would have been better at only three or four parts, rather than six, without those re-enacted moments, and with maybe a bit more of a focus on one of its secondary stories — the tragedy of Eric Olson, Frank Olson’s son.

It comes up numerous time though the series that Eric Olson had been doing really interesting work as a psychologist pursuing collage as a method of psychological treatment. It also comes up that, ultimately, he was never able to pursue this work to its fullest because of his obsession in trying to uncover the truth about his father’s death. And given the fact that he and his family had clearly been lied to at nearly every step along the way, during the multiple decades between his father’s death and today, it’s entirely understandable that he would obsessively continue to dig for the truth.

Ultimately the story of Frank Olson is one of two tragedies: One of the father, and one of the son. And given that even in the final moments of this series, the whole truth has still not been uncovered, maybe that’s kind of a third tragedy as well.

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