‘Wormwood’–Hamlet, the CIA & the Rot of Dirty Politics ✮✮✮✮✮

The title, “Wormwood,” is just as baffling as the beginning that explains it in this Neflix mini series that is part documentary and part re-enactment with a collaging of images that builds to a bitter end. This is a CIA Cold War can of worms.

You might be wondering just what is wormwood. Organic gardeners might know. In one of my drought-tolerant gardens, I planted wormwood. Wormwood was, I read,  a natural deterrent to cats and our neighbor had about ten cats that she was feeding. The cats didn’t poop where they ate. They walked across our driveway and used our yard.

Native to Eurasia, wormwood has naturalized in North America. Wormwood (artemisia absinthium) was once used as a cure for worms–in the worming of cats and dogs. It is also used in the making of absinthe. In the Netflix mini series “Wormwood,” its meaning is both biblical and figurative and yet there’s a sense of how to deal with a nasty can of worms once opened.  “Wormwood” streams on Netflix beginning Dec. 15, but was screened at AFI FEST on Saturday, 11 Nov. 2017.

In the Bible, wormwood is mentioned more than once in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, it is only mentioned once. In the “Book of Revelation,” Wormwood is a star.

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.

Wormwood is known for its bitterness and this six-episode tale is bitter to the broken bones of a falling man and explains how he and many people may have died.

Errol Morris’ “Wormwood” documents a man’s sixty-year obsessive investigation into his father’s 1953 death. This isn’t a story with a happy ending. And Morris doesn’t tell it in a purely intellectual way, fact-based procedural manner. Morris combines  atmospheric re-enactments with interviews but also splits the screen to suggest both hallucinations, different possibilities and the collages that Eric Olson works on as an “antitoxin for psychic trauma.”

Eric’s 1976 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation was titled “The Mind’s Collage: Psychic Composition in Adult Life.” Yet much of his life has been devoted to finding out what happened on a single night when he was a young boy.

Although we don’t initially realize what Morris is doing, in time his method of layering images, either by showing them consecutively or by using split screens, becomes a method of suggesting the effects of LSD, versions of the truth, differing viewpoints and the collages that Eric works on.

Anyone alive during the 9/11 attacks will likely experience some of the mind’s collage during the first chapter, “Suicide Revealed,” when one sees the image of the falling man. Here the curious question is did Dr. Frank Olson (Peter Sarsgaard) jump or fall? Eric was nine at the time, but over two decades later, the Olson family learns that Frank was drugged while at a CIA facility run by Sidney Gottlieb (Tim Blake).  The family asks and gets an apology from the president.

In “A Terrible Mistake,” Morris attempts to retrace the days before the drugging, when Frank visits colleague—CIA allergist Harold Abramson (Bob Balaban). The CIA also provides some papers that lead to more questions and the Olson family receives a settlement.

Eric meets his father’s former colleagues in “The Forbidden Threshold.” In the past, Frank is portrayed as being slightly paranoid but he causes a security breach that his colleague Vin Ruwet (Scott Shepherd) must deal with. In the present, Eric looks at inconsistencies in the official narrative of Frank’s last 24-hours.

“Opening the Lid,” recounts what the hotel staff noticed and the behavior of Robert Lashbrook (Christian Carmargo). After a remarkable coincidence, Eric decides to have his father’s body exhumed and re-autopsied in 1994.  A note to the squeamish or the ghoulish, we do get a view of the blackened remains.

In the fifth episode, the re-enactment has Eric’s mother, Alice Olson (Molly Parker) receiving the government employees who took Frank to NYC. Their explanations are vague. In real life, Eric attempts to link information about the CIA’s drug experimentation with the biological warfare used during the Korean War.

The last episode is filled with bitter irony. The legendary journalist, Seymour “Sy” Hersh, who earlier castigated the family for not investigating Frank’s death and who much later urged Eric to drop his investigations, now looks into the Frank’s death using his confidential sources.

Throughout the mini series, we see snippets of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 black-and-white adaptation of “Hamlet.” Although this was the first talkie of Shakespeare’s tragedy in English and was the first British film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, it was Olivier’s second film as a director. Olivier was 41 at the time. Eileen Herlie, who played Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, was younger than Olivier at 30. While that might make the Oedipus complex more complex in the movie, it doesn’t make the leap over Olivier’s vanity.

Olivier’s Hamlet was more athletic than some, but the story is basically about the paternal duty of three sons: Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras. Olivier completely cuts out Fortinbras as well as  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Hamlet was the son who hesitated too long to take action. Laertes was the hot-headed son who brashly takes actions, but allows himself to be manipulated by the villain of the piece (Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and stepfather). Fortinbras was the son who balanced the two. Like Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, Eric seems to have lost most of his life wandering in this quest, consumed by thoughts of his father. Yet his battles against the government, make him seem more like Don Quixote.

The images used in “Wormwood” are haunting. Remembering how beautiful the family home once was, a sign of financial success, and seeing the murky swimming pool now and the house no longer perkily painted remind one of the weight of unresolved issues of justice and how secrets. What dooms Eric seems to be what doomed his father, an unquiet conscience.

“Wormwood” really is a must-see for all filmmakers because of its seamless integration of re-enactments and psychological collaging effects, but also for those interested in justice and truth in government (which should be every adult).  “Wormwood” is a rich, engrossing experience which is filled with bitter dread, but may be just the right medicine for driving the unwanted worms out of government.


  1. Although ‘Hamlet’ receives commentary in the discussion of the Morris documentary, the significance of the title ‘Wormwood’ is missed: it is a word uttered by Hamlet when he proves to himself that his mother was complicit in the murder of her husband, King Hamlet. He means apparently that this is bitter, a word that accurately describes the conclusion to the story of the murder of the CIA operative in 1953.


      Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too.
      My operant powers their functions leave to do.
      And thou shalt live in this fair world behind,
      Honored, beloved, and haply one as kind
      For husband shalt thou–

      Oh, confound the rest!
      Such love must needs be treason in my breast
      In second husband let me be accursed!
      None wed the second but who killed the first.

      (aside) Wormwood, wormwood.

      Hamlet has not proven to himself that his mother was complicit in the murder. The play, “The Murder of Gonzago” reflects Hamlet’s opinion of how his mother should have acted. His utterance only underlines his bitterness that she did not stay a widow. Yet in Shakespeare’s time marriages would be understood to be alliances instead of romantic love matches.

      Later, his mother comments, “The lady protests too much methinks” to which Hamlet replies, “Oh, but she’ll keep her word.”

      Yet “Wormwood” is not critical of Frank Olson’s wife/widow. The government/CIA would seem to reflect “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.