TV Review: ‘Wormwood’ Betrays Interesting Conspiracy With Overblown Structure

Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? There’s a whole genre of entertainment dedicated to looking at true crimes. It’s even juicer when it pertains to our government’s cover ups. “Wormwood” closely examines the death of a CIA agent and family man, told through the lens of his son’s decades-long investigation. The facts and plot points are interesting; however, they are also redundant. After unraveling a plot detail in the documentary portion of the film, we are treated to a narrative recreation of the same events.

Frank Olsen was a CIA employee who was found dead one night in 1953. It appeared he had jumped out the window of his hotel room and was killed upon impact. However, it was later uncovered that Olsen was given LSD by the CIA as part of Project MXUltra, also called the CIA mind control program. The Olsen family was issued an apology and thought that was the end of the story of Frank’s death. However, Frank’s son, Eric, decided to embark on a quest for more answers. The more he digs, the more he feels the CIA is not telling him the full story. In fact, he thinks his dad was pushed out that window in 1953, that he didn’t jump.

The show oscillates between a documentary structured around Eric’s investigation into his father’s death and a dramatic recreation of Frank’s last days. Peter Sarsgaard portrays Frank. Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban, and Molly Parker fill out the rest of the CIA and Olsen family. As we ping pong between Eric’s search and Sarsgaard’s paranoid looks over his shoulder, it’s hard not to get whiplash. Rather than build on top of one another, the two styles are constantly at war with each other. The dramatic narrative section is meant to “show, not tell.” It’s supposed to add color and detail to the facts that we’ve heard during the documentary portion. Instead, it ends up showing us what the film has already told us. It’s a redundant exercise that pads the story.

If the shift to the narrative wasn’t already jarring enough, the filmmaking qualities could not be more different. The documentary relies heavily on the talking heads tropes. We delve so completely into Eric’s theories about his father, the documentary rambles for at least two of its six episodes. The red herrings and the process of learning the truth might be interesting if the film was tighter and more focused. However, it felt like a ball of yarn unspooling all over the place, with no end in sight.

When we cut from here to the narrative, the film veers into the over-stylized. Director Errol Morris constructs a creepy genre film where every creak is a potential jump scare. On its own, this would be a striking thriller. However, it comes off almost as self-parody next to the documentary. In many ways the film seems to be an earnest attempt to mirror “American Horror Story: Roanoke.”

Still, one must give credit to Peter Sarsgaard for selling the ever present danger lurking around Frank Olsen. Sarsgaard never overplays his hand. He paints a picture of a well-meaning family man whose attempts to try and do the right thing may have led to his demise. Olsen’s actions dig him deeper and deeper into a conspiracy he’s never going to be able to rise out of. Knowing the outcome makes the proceedings all the more tragic. It’s a shame it couldn’t be a standalone film.

“Wormwood” features many powerful scenes and a central question that is interesting and engrossing. Yet, all the bells and whistles it adorns itself with weigh the project down. There’s a fascinating hour and a half documentary or a tight mystery thriller in here, depending on where one goes with it. Yet, in its current state, it’s bloated, uneven, and plodding. The length is a problem. Across six episodes, the information is parsed out so slowly one loses interest somewhat quickly. It’s best to power through, as the temptation to move on to something else constantly lurks. In wanting to have it both ways, “Wormwood” fails to succeed in any way.

“Wormwood” currently has all six episodes available on Netflix.

GRADE: (★★)