Wormwood

TV review by
Melissa Camacho, Common Sense Media
Wormwood TV Poster Image
Dark docudrama about drugs, suicide, and a CIA cover-up.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

CIA is responsible for many secretive, often unethical activities. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eric Olson is committed to finding out what happened to his father. 

Violence

Suicide a major theme. Cold War concerns, including espionage, killings, and other activities discussed. 

Sex
Language

"Goddamn," "hell."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Experimental use of LSD is a major theme. Beer, hard alcohol occasionally consumed. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Wormwood is a dark docudrama about the death of a civilian military scientist in the 1950s, and the efforts to learn about the facts surrounding it decades later. Suicide and LSD drug experimentation are major themes, as are the covert tactics used by the CIA during the Cold War. Words like "goddamn" and "hell" are audible. Given the subject matter, most teens won't be drawn to it, and some viewers will find it disturbing, but conspiracy lovers will enjoy its unique storytelling style. 

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What's the story?

Directed by renowned filmmaker Errol Morris, WORMWOOD is a six-part docudrama about the mysterious death of a civilian scientist working at a military research lab in the 1950s. In 1953 Frank Olson allegedly committed suicide by jumping out of a New York City hotel window. It wasn't until 1975 that Olson's family, thanks to the release of the President's Commission on CIA Activities within the United States ( aka The Rockefeller Report), learned that Frank died as a result of unknowingly participating in a CIA drug experiment using LSD. But over the years, the facts surrounding his death have not been forthcoming, prompting Olson's son Eric to commit his adult life to uncovering the entire story. Extensive interviews with Eric Olson and archived media footage reveal some disturbing details about the CIA cover-up. Dramatizations featuring actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker offer reconstructions of what allegedly happened prior to the scientist's death.

Is it any good?

This collage-like, dark series blends interviews, media footage, and actor reenactments (of possibly imagined events) to create a unique but troubling documentary. The story jumps back and forth between 1953 and 1975 to reveal what happened to Frank Olson and his family while highlighting the U.S. government's late response to his death. Contemporary conversations with Eric Olson and his lawyer, most of which reveal how they have gone about trying to get answers, help put these moments in context. 

The fictional dramatizations of Frank Olson's ordeal, including his alleged paranoid reactions to the drugs he was given, and the CIA's efforts to manipulate him as he struggled, are filled with sinister moments. The less theatrical reveals of the CIA's covert Cold War tactics, including illicit drug testing and espionage, are equally disturbing. Wormwood is an interesting watch, but one that raises a lot more questions than answers, and it's as entertaining as it is informative.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about conspiracies. How do people feel when their government is accused of, or found to have engaged in, unethical or unlawful activities? Why would a government keep secrets? 

  • Governments around the world often engage in operations in order to protect their countries' interests. Do the ends justify the means?

  • What is the difference between a documentary and a docudrama? How would the story that Wormwood tells be impacted if it got rid of the actor portrayals of events?  

TV details

For kids who love documentaries

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