Why 'Wormwood' Director Errol Morris Is the Most Influential Documentarian in the World

Errol Morris
Jeff Vespa/WireImage via Getty Images
Jeff Vespa/WireImage via Getty Images

This week, Netflix released Wormwood, a four-hour mini-series that blends documentary filmmaking with dramatized sequences featuring Hollywood actors to tell the story of the CIA's top secret MKUltra Program. Compared to other recent releases from the company, the new show -- or is it one, long movie? -- is unique in its form, but the meat of the story, which dives into the mysterious suicide of scientist Frank Olson (played by Peter Sarsgaard), should be catnip to fans of true crime docs on the platform like Making of a Murderer, The Keepers, and even the satirical American Vandal. Each of those streaming success stories shares DNA with the work of Wormwood director Errol Morris, the most influential documentary filmmaker working today.

That makes his arrival on Netflix, which has made a pronounced effort to increase its unscripted output in recent years, particularly exciting: The 69-year-old director is here to show the kids how its done. While Morris has worked in television before, creating the short-lived profile series First Person in the early '00s and directing over 1,000 commercials for brands like Nike, Adidas, and Toyota over the course of his career, he's best known for films like Gates of Heaven, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, The Fog of War, and The Unknown Known. But, the movie he's perhaps most celebrated for -- and the one with the largest cultural footprint -- is The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 true crime documentary that actually ended up helping to free an innocent man.

With a mix of detailed analysis, spirited advocacy, and stylistic rigor, particularly in its use of meticulously researched reenactments, The Thin Blue Line signaled a seismic shift in nonfiction filmmaking. Like Citizen Kane or Jaws, it's a movie that's had such a profound effect on American popular culture -- many of its methods, tics, and quirks can be seen on those true crime docs that play in marathon blocks on cable television -- that the exact scope of its impact can be hard to measure. While a series like Cops seized on the cinéma vérité elements of the documentary tradition, the wave of Morris-indebted shows and films prioritized on-camera interviews and glossy, staged sequences to tell their stories. From the low-brow staple America's Most Wanted to the high-brow phenomenon The Jinx, Morris's approach is everywhere.

Errol Morris' 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line | The Criterion Collection

Like his friend and occasional collaborator Werner Herzog, who once ate a shoe on camera after losing a bet that Morris would never finish his first feature, he is fascinated by the nature of truth. His films reflect the themes that have fueled most great post-WWII art in America: the pernicious influence of mass media, the corrupting power of political institutions, and the artifice of reality itself. "I've never liked the idea expressed by Godard that film is truth 24 times a second," said Morris in a lecture titled The Anti-Post-Modern Post-Modernist. "I have a slightly different version. Film is lies 24 times a second."

And, yet, there's still a journalistic, investigative quality to his work. He's a peerless interviewer, parrying questions at his subjects and giving them space to talk themselves in circles, but his movies often leave you feeling bewildered. Definitive conclusions rarely arrive. Answers materialize, then disappear. The people he interviews, whether its a backwoods turtle-enthusiast or Donald Rumsfeld, often appear to be lying their asses off. That sinking feeling, a sort of intellectual destabilization, is what separates his work from the legion of imitators.

Vernon Florida
Errol Morris's 1981 documentary, Vernon, Florida | IFC Films

At the same time, the movies have more humanity and humor than many of his more dour, sanctimonious peers. (It made sense when he revealed himself as an appreciator of Comedy Central prankster genius Nathan Fielder, who quickly identified himself as a Morris fan.) Vernon, Florida, his 1981 portrait of small town life, is as funny and strange as documentaries come, a meandering catalog of eccentrics, raconteurs, and turkey-hunting philosophers. Even watching a random clip of the movie on YouTube gives you a sense of its hypnotic quality. It's like peering through a periscope into another dimension -- or, to update the metaphor, stumbling onto a Periscope stream of unknown origins.  

Roger Ebert, one of Morris's most fervent champions, used to list Gates of Heaven, Morris's 1978 debut about a Northern California pet cemetery, as one of the ten best films ever made. Right away, he understood what made Morris's work so complex. "I have seen this film perhaps 30 times," he wrote in a 1997 essay on the movie. "And am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it's about a lot more than pet cemeteries."

Wormwood Errol Morris
Errol Morris on the set of Wormwood | Zach Dilgard/Netflix

How does he do it? Morris always zeroes in on a highly specific, often bizarre subject, but opens it up in a way that feels cosmic. Lion tamers (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control), dog-cloners (Tabloid), and Holocaust deniers (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr) are treated with the same sense of distanced bemusement and genuine curiosity as physicist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) or former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (The Fog of War​​​​​​​). His gaze is penetrating but empathetic. Unlike the equally brilliant Frederick Wiseman, who examines a different institutions with each film, Morris is keenly interested in his subjects as individuals. He likes their flaws and idiosyncrasies. He loves their egos. The people in his films are always performing, constructing their identities through jumbled bits of speech, careful movements, and telling silences. Perhaps that's why his movies are perfect for the social media age: He understood the concept of a "personal brand" before it became a marketing cliche.

Earlier this month, Morris, perhaps feeling a little self-reflective, tweeted back at a person who asked him about the recent Netflix-released documentary Voyeur. "The filmmakers were clearly influenced by your work," wrote the fan. "Maybe everybody is influenced by my work," wrote back Morris. "Except me. I just make it. (Alas.)" He followed it up with a couple additional koan-like insights. 

Even if he thinks these questions of legacy, inspiration, and influence are a little ridiculous, there's no escaping them. As Netflix's massive global user base discovers Wormwood, expect even more accolades and superlatives to come his way. It makes sense that he would continue to parse them like a character in an Errol Morris movie. Deflecting. Joking. Searching.

For what exactly? The lack of clarity might be the point.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.