Monday, 11 May 2020

TV review: Wormwood, Netflix (2017)

An undeniably strange, subtle production, this compelling show tells a story about conscience, justice, and truth. It’s topical now as it deals with whistleblowers and biological warfare. In six episodes, the drama centres on a Maryland family, the Olsens, and involves interviews – mainly with Eric (the son of Frank, who was a scientist working in a secret biological weapons facility in the 1950s) – as well as reenactments and fictionalisations.

In the last two categories of content, Peter Sarsgaard plays Frank Olsen and Molly Parker plays his wife, Alice. Three people who worked with or were associated with Frank are Vincent Ruwet (Scott Shepherd), Sidney Gottlieb (Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Lashbrook (Christian Camargo). There’s also a doctor named Harold Abramson (Bob Balaban), and a CIA operative whose name is not given but who plays a key role (Jimmi Simpson).

Since 1953, when he was a boy of about seven years, Eric’s had trouble dealing with his father’s death, and so his telling of his father’s story is both poignant and political involving, as it does, Cold War programs that, today, remain shrouded in mystery. In a world of secrets and death, the drama hinges on our seeming obsession with the clandestine, as though, since the decline of religion as an organising principle in the world, we had merely substituted one organisation – the state – for another – the church. Perhaps our tendency to see plots everywhere is innate to the species; it might be something about us, like an ability to perceive movement among the trees of a forest.

About all of us, not just Eric Olsen. The show will appeal to those who like true crime, but in addition to dramatic tactics stemming from such genres as the spy thriller, including the use of novel drugs, an obscure death, and conflicting accounts of events, ‘Wormwood’ takes you to the edge of the ever-present moment of becoming as time flows relentlessly on, transporting us into the future.

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