Netflix CIA conspiracy documentary Wormwood: how to find truth while tearing up the rules

Frank Olson under the microscope. Netflix

First things first: Wormwood, Errol Morris’s new six-part CIA conspiracy series on Netflix, is a documentary. But this did not appear to be the view of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which deemed it ineligible for the Oscars’ documentary category.

One can see how some might reach this conclusion. This story of Eric Olson and his decades-long investigation into his scientist father Frank’s mysterious death plunge from a New York hotel window in 1953 uses reenactment sequences featuring recognisable, excellent actors like Peter Saarsgard, Molly Parker and Bob Balaban.

It is a story about an alleged government cover-up, CIA involvement and drugging victims with LSD. This is all given stylistic emphasis with clips from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and near kaleidoscopic split-screen interview sequences. As such, the series’ form matches the hallucinatory and byzantine characteristics of its protagonist’s quest for truth.

Yet the Academy’s objection has little to do with the reenactments – in fact, actors in reenactments are eligible for acting nominations. Rather the issue is Wormwood’s serialised format. After the Best Documentary Feature win earlier this year for OJ: Made in America, the Academy disallowed multi-series nominations.

What a documentary is

Critics have muddied the waters too, saying Wormwood is “not quite a documentary and not quite a drama”. But treating Wormwood as docudrama disregards much of the history of documentary. Fictional elements have played a key role in truth telling in the genre, starting with when Louise Lumière instructed his workers to exit his factory for a second time as he filmed them in his celebrated 1895 short.

Even if one disregards Nanook of the North (1922) as documentary for casting Inuit man Allakariallak in the title role, plenty other examples with fictional elements should be included. Ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch involved his participants in the production of their own stories in Moi, Un Noir (1954) and La Pyramide Humaine (1960). He believed the stories people told for themselves revealed far more than interviews or observation. And Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) emphasises the ways such stories construct a life.

Hoaxes, too, can reveal valuable things in a documentary. The Couple in the Cage (1992) chronicles the response of audiences to Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña’s tour as “undiscovered Amerindians”, granting insights into deep and continuing colonialism in museums, art galleries and indeed documentary.

One can see similar playful revelations even in Borat (2006), where Sasha Baron Cohen’s provocations as the eponymous reporter expose Americans’ response to an Eastern other. This fake newsman yields real information.

And the list of documentaries that challenge a reliance on shaky handheld, fly-on-the-wall footage or authoritative voiceover continues. Waltz with Bashir (2008) uses animation to depict filmmaker Ari Folman’s investigation into his repressed memories. In The Missing Picture (2013), Rithy Panh uses clay figurines to help recall a childhood of extreme loss in the Cambodian genocide. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) (Morris was executive producer) chronicles men producing and performing in a film about the genocide in which they took an active role.

Morris major

Wormwood therefore shares a lot with the documentary tradition, in both its experimentations and its preoccupations with an elusive truth. Additionally, it is Errol Morris all over.

Errol Morris. Wikimedia

Eric Olson stands at the centre of the story, his life and obsessions having been shaped by the loss of his father. A trained clinical psychologist, he has drawn on a collage method as a means of repairing trauma and its distorting effects on the memory.

These fervent pursuits make Eric a familiar figure within the Morris oeuvre – predominantly documentary and typically compelling. The American filmmaker has delivered a range of eccentrics and experts including the residents of Vernon Florida (1981); the execution designer and Holocaust denier in Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A Leuchter (1999), and the delightful photographer Elsa Dorfman in The B-Side (2016).

More familiar might be Morris’s character studies of US secretaries of defence Robert McNamara (The Fog of War, 2003) and Donald Rumsfeld (The Unknown Known, 2013), both of whom are deemed responsible for leading the nation into unpopular wars.

Wormwood also shares with other Morris productions a preoccupation with piecing together a history. Standard Operating Procedure (2008), for instance, tells of the events at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq while addressing how digital photographs can become evidence, both for documentaries and trials. This calls attention to a larger system that decides on what is a crime (and not standard operating procedure).

Similarly, Morris’s break-out film, The Thin Blue Line (1989), reconstructed the shooting death of police officer Robert Woods by scrutinising evidence, reports and testimonies; and using them alongside reenactments.

These experimentations with documentary style highlighted the challenge of recovering the past, though Morris emphatically stated that the film was not a disavowal of the truth. There is the fact of an occurrence. Someone was shot. Someone pulled the trigger. Not everything is a matter of perspective. Astoundingly, The Thin Blue Line aided in the exoneration of Randall Adams (below), who had been imprisoned for the crime.

Wormwood takes up similar pursuits with delirious flourish, resulting in a multi-layered experience. “I was told that your father has had an accident,” says Eric during an interview. “But that was the cover story told by the CIA”.

The reenactments echo and sometimes anticipate details that appear in onscreen reports or congressional testimonies. Each fact offers itself to necessary scrutiny over its origins, how it came about, whether it is corroborated, and generally its status as evidence.

The series encourages the viewer to watch with a critical gaze. But it neither rushes to the kind of reactionary scepticism that leads people to cry “fake news!”, nor trusts unquestioningly anything that appears as an authoritative fact. Wormwood achieves what all the best documentaries do: it challenges the idea that filmmakers can only establish facts through techniques like straight observation or an authoritative voiceover, but without for a moment compromising its commitment to uncover the truth.

Wormwood premieres on Netflix on December 15.