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.