Viewer’s Discretion: “A Gray State” and “Wormwood”


‘A GRAY STATE’ (APPLE, NETFLIX)

At a time when reality is dismissed as “fake news” in favor of “alternative facts,” “A Gray State” functions well as a cautionary tale of allowing such reality dysmorphia to take control of your life. But that’s only part of a cocktail that turns deadly for David Crowley and, most unfortunately, his wife and daughter in this compelling, alarming and ultimately gloomy documentary that offers valuable insights.

Crowley was ex-military, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, whose patriotism took a shift after his tours of duty and he began to careen into a mindset devoted to conspiratorial thinking about world events. Determined — or, you might say, obsessed — with putting these ideas into a fictional film that would, in his mind, also educate, Crowley begins a journey of fundraising and filmmaking that coincides with psychological deterioration that is only remotely understood following an act of murder-suicide.

Director Erik Nelson has plenty of filmed footage of Crowley to work with as he attempts to retrace the exact circumstances of what happened. Though Crowley fell into professional relationships with the alt-right, behind-the-scenes documentation reveals an alienation from the very people he was beginning to ideologically represent, as well as his friends and family. As it were, the conspiracies created a bubble that separated Crowley from the mainstream and then allowed him to create an inner bubble that allowed for a cult-like feedback loop between he and his wife.

This is a fascinating, disturbing tale of the way people cut themselves off, ideologically and emotionally, and what effect that has on attaining the truth. In the end, Crowley is a mystery and a contradiction, and the facts we try to attach to his story can sometimes feel as tenuous as the ones he clung to as he feared a world-wide conspiracy for a new order in a police state America.


‘WORMWOOD’ (NETFLIX)

This hybrid documentary-drama series takes the form to a new level by interlacing the two sections to compliment one another, allowing each the strength to standalone, but using this power to build multiple levels of understanding when put together.

Directed by American documentary genius Errol Morris, “Wormwood” concerns itself with the death of scientist Frank Olson in 1953. Olson came plummeting out of a hotel window in New York City, and over the decades the circumstances of his death — which includes CIA secrets, clandestine LSD testing, biological warfare, political cover-ups and more — has shifted in understanding.

But while the conspiracies around Olson form the structure of the series, it’s really about his son, Eric. His decades of obsession with uncovering the truth has propelled the investigation longer than anyone would ever imagine possible and roped in players that you could never have imagined without his efforts, including Seymour Hersh and Gerald Ford. The series is divided between Morris’ trademark talking-head interviews and moody reenactments of the past. The former offers the information, but the latter gives the emotion, not only of the events being covered, but also inside Eric’s head, since they play out like the movies of his own imagination trying to visualize what in the world happened to his father.

In its investigation of a quest for the truth, “Wormwood” brings to light what the truth takes away, and how there might actually be limits to the truth that make the cost less satisfactory when weighed against the dividend of the effort. In a media landscape where true-crime investigations are a dime a dozen, Morris redirects our concern for the subject matter, showing us the importance not just of the nuts-and-bolts moral digression of the crime, but the tentacled meanings that outstretch from its center.

Originally published at www.berkshireeagle.com.

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