Wormwood / Netflix

“Something has troubled me. I never recall having told Mrs. Olson anything that was flatly untrue. I did allow her to think things that were untrue. I just would like to have that put on the record that I do regret it.”—-Colonel Vin Ruwet, Congressional Hearing, September 10, 1975

“You hear some noises back in the woods and you’re not sure what they are. You know the noises are there. Somebody is making the noises. The more you understand, the less you can draw a conclusion.”—-Harry Huge, Wormwood

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“I don’t know. All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.”—-Jeff Markham, Out Of The Past

For the past four chapters, Errol Morris has introduced, developed, and examined quite a bit of evidence, almost all circumstantial, that point to the fact that Frank Olson did not commit suicide under the influence of LSD. With the help of Eric Olson, Morris suggests that the CIA assassinated Frank because they believed he was a potential security risk due to his discomfort and disgust with the government’s use of biological weapons in the Korean War. But it’s in the fifth chapter, “Honorable Men,” that this theory takes center stage and technically plunges Wormwood into the realm of conspiracy.

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Yet, Morris appropriately never positions the theory as a far-flung idea, even though it requires a modest leap of faith. As David Rudovsky, the Olson family attorney, says, there’s never going to be 100% certitude on this issue, and the best you can hope for is to suss out the most plausible story. But then you have to ask yourself, what is the most plausible story? That an extended bad trip sent an Army scientist to dive out of a 13th floor window? Or that the intelligence community was worried that one of their own was gonna shine on a light on some of the darkest sections in the government’s arsenal?

In “Honorable Men,” Eric Olson flat out says the LSD story is a fabrication, an attempt for the government to simultaneously take responsibility and deflect blame. It was the drugs that made him do it allows the CIA to offer a meaningless mea culpa and to misdirect from the real issue—that the government was “using” biological weapons in Korea. Now, Olson is upfront that the word “using” implies many actions, some more sinister than others. The government could have just been testing these weapons, or it could have a massive deployment. It’s not only unclear if the government used biological weapons in Korea, but if they did, it’s also unclear to what extent they did. But either way, Frank Olson believed they did, and that alone was enough to effectively seal his fate.

Eric’s attorney friend Harry Huge fully believes that if there were a sole individual accused of all the evidence that Eric has accumulated over the years, they would be convinced of murder. But the problem is that there isn’t a sole individual that can be reasonably accused of the crime. By the mid-00s, Sidney Gottlieb, Robert Lashbrook, and Vin Ruwet are all dead. (Ruwet had a heart attack in church not long after Saracco had contacted him saying that the DA’s office had opened a criminal investigation into Frank’s death.) The people they likely contracted out have long disappeared. There are only the institutions that gave the orders, but that’s also a dead end. As Eric explains, it’s impossible to sue the government for intent, only negligence. It should be noted that the judge who dismissed the second suit Eric and Huge brought up in the 00s admitted that he believed the facts of the case. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to go forward.

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So what do you do? Most people would, in the words of Don Draper, live in the “not knowing.” That seems to me to be the purpose of the dramatizations of Alice Olson struggling to comprehend her husband’s death. She’s in a state of shock. Time has slowed down. Morris lingers on Ruwet making a gin martini like it’s ritual. Alice pours tea for Lashbrook and Gottlieb almost catatonically. It’s a portrait of a devoted wife’s grief around an issue that fundamentally makes no sense. Frank’s colleagues all offer sympathy but no answers. They spill lies by omission. Some guilt trickles through their voices, but none of it is discernible to Alice. At the end of the day, it’s just Hell. Alice will live in the “not knowing” until 1975 when she finally accepts the government’s answer and apology.

But that’s impossible for Eric, and thus the mystery has taken over his life. He’s still ensconced in his family home. He demands answers and wants to hold people responsible, but he’s fundamentally stopped at almost every conceivable level. After you brush aside all the misdirection, the lies, and the cover-ups, all you have left is deep-seated frustration that this will never be meaningfully resolved. Eric blames Saracco for eventually closing the case, believing that he was in over his head, and eventually lashes out Huge for not doing more. None of them blame him, necessarily, because Eric’s pain and obsession is clearly profound. But it’s the end result of someone desperately pushing a theory that’s impossible to prove.

Though Eric is committed to his cause, it’s telling that he’s not out of touch with reality. He knows that his mission is ultimately futile. He knows that the best he can hope to achieve is a plausible story that will never be definitive. He lives with the speculation, not to mention the decades of inquiry, and a lifetime of trauma. Morris presents him as a man who has seen the full picture. Yet, in 2014, when he tells Seymour Hersh about his findings, Eric’s stunned to learn that Hersh himself bought the original cover story. He’s surrounded by people who are stuck in the frame, including those, like Hersh, who should theoretically know better. But after Hersh digs a little bit, he discovers some new information about Olson’s death. Could it be the end of the road? Or will it just open more doors that lead nowhere?

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Stray observations

  • After Eric tells Morris that Ruwet died in church, Morris responds, in the most pitch-perfect snarky tone, “Was he on his knees? Like Claudius?”
  • One of the most disturbing sequences in Wormwood, at least for me, is the interrogation scene at the beginning of this chapter. Gottlieb and Lashbrook’s attempts to manipulate Frank’s psyche and doubt his capabilities are infuriating and tragic. “Are you conceited? Do you talk too much? Are you out of touch with reality?” is just a mean spirited line of question.
  • Morris briefly digresses into the nature of John Mulholland, a magician who wrote a 50-page manual on misdirection that was used by the CIA, and the second man who Olson consulted in New York. This might have been a bridge too far for a somewhat bloated project, but Eric’s response justifies the detour: He first offhandedly remarks that it’s not the obvious choice to take a seemingly paranoid person to a magician, and then quickly admits that it’s irrelevant anyway because the whole LSD story is garbage.

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