WASHINGTON — Errol Morris’ “Wormwood,” which recently debuted on Netflix, is about a Cold War era mystery that has persisted for more than 60 years: What really happened to Frank Olson, a government chemist who mysteriously fell to his death from a New York hotel in 1953?
“At the center of this story is a theme that is still ongoing in our current society, and it is the story of government lying. To what extent can the government unendingly lie to us, and can we still call this a democracy?” Morris tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM.
That’s a bit of a warning to the present day. “One of the things the government does. They fuzz things up. They create disinformation, alternative stories, they create so called ‘alternative facts,’ to the point where you don’t know what is going on any more or what to believe anymore,” he says. “The world becomes a kind of vapor, a cloud, where you believe anything you want.”
At the time of Olson’s death, the Army ruled it a suicide. Just over two decades later, in the wake of congressional focus on illicit and illegal CIA activities, it was revealed that Olson actually was part of LSD experiments, and Olson’s family earned an apology from President Gerald Ford.
What is especially unique about the project is that it mixes documentary and narrative filmmaking. Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olson. The title is taken from a reference in “Hamlet.”
“Wormwood” focuses extensively on Olson’s son Eric, who has been on a quest since 1975 to find out the full truth of what happened to his father that night. The suspicion is that Frank Olson was murdered, as he was involved in top-secret experiments in the use of chemical weapons but had begun showing signs of breaking down as his LSD use continued.
Morris says that it’s “been an ongoing controversy since the 1950s, the claim that the United States used biological weapons in the Korean War. If you ask anybody, it’s a gray area. People can’t say yes. People can’t say no.” He says that he believes that “it’s hard to believe we would have gone to that extraordinary effort without ever trying to test them.”
He wants to continue to pursue the mystery, even if the Netflix project is finished. Among other things, he’d like to interview former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was Ford’s chief of staff.
“I am not done with this story. The story may be done with me, but I am not done with it,” Morris says. “I’d like to take it all the way through. I know that there is more, a lot more, that we are looking at the tip of an iceberg.”
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs on Thursdays from 2-3 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS.