It was reported that, in 1966, the CIA’s efforts to create conflict in other countries went so far as to pay U.S. universities and colleges to actively recruit educators willing to train foreign students in the fine art of covert police methods (i.e. The Ramparts Affair) . In 1973, it was disclosed that the CIA was behind the assassination of Salvador Allende, Latin America’s first democratically-elected Socialist leader. And in 1981, it’s been established that the CIA got directly involved in selling weapons to Iran so that they could use this money to finance covert operations taking place in the country of Nicaragua, a little something something that would inevitably be linked to President Ronald Reagan’s administration (i.e. the Iran-Contra Affair). While these activities may not have taken place (to a degree) on U.S. soil, it’s been widely suggested that the Agency’s dirty work is still being discovered by those willing to put their lives at risk as well as those of their loved ones. True undercover journalism does not come without consequence.
In 2019, Stephen Kinzer released his expose – Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb And The CIA Search For Mind Control – an examination that focused in no small part on the Agency’s MK-ULTRA mind control project. Though this program took place in the 1950’s and 1960’s, not a wealth of information has come out in mainstream press (at least, not from my knowledge) that discussed just how far these individuals subverted ethics and laws in order to craft a means to control men and women. Perhaps their most salacious element of this research – a clandestine attempt dubbed Operation Midnight Climax – has really only been discussed at length once it had been uncovered by a member of the CIA Inspector General’s office … but now it’s the subject of a major motion picture in 2022.
MK ULTRA (aka Midnight Climax) is written and directed by Joseph Sorrentino. It stars Anson Mount in the role of Dr. Ford Strauss, a psychiatrist who sells his soul (albeit briefly) to the CIA in exchange for funding to determine whether or not the drug LSD can be used to positively treat patients suffering from a variety of emotional and mental issues. While the story as presented is quite chilling, I suspect there’s no means to confirm all of the details explored, as – in 1973 – the director of the program ordered all records of the controversial program destroyed.
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“Set during the true and unconscionable Central Intelligence Agency MK ULTRA drug experiments in the early 1960s, Midnight Climax follows the journey of Ford Strauss, a brilliant psychiatrist, whose moral and scientific boundaries are pushed to the limit as he is recruited to run a subsect of the program in a rural Mississippi Mental Hospital.”
Fans of government conspiracy yarns – The X-Files, Project Blue Book, Fringe, etc. or even films like The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Parallax View (1974), or Capricorn One (1977), – might want to set aside two hours to undergo this taut little chiller. Those obvious affiliates mentioned might be a bit flashier – as well as up-tempo – but this smart film certainly falls within that sphere of influence. While I’ll admit to being a conspiracy junkie – and one who was more than a bit superficially aware of MK ULTRA – even I wasn’t quite prepared for this examination of how easy it was for a few agents within the wayward government agency to abuse both their powers and the public trust in the pursuit of something many might suggest scientifically implausible. Of course, that never stopped a superpower from attempting it, and therein lies the true evil at the heart of Sorrentino’s film.
The arc of the main player – Dr. Strauss (played by Mount) – is easy to follow: he’s a dedicated professional who wants to help others find a cure for what ails them mentally. As a source of funding for his continued research has grown increasingly slim, he’s forced to consider the unthinkable: a shady government operative (Jason Patric) is willing to supply him with both money and psychedelic drugs so long as he agrees to full and complete cooperation with whatever future demands are made. Though this naturally brings him into conflict with those around him, Strauss signs aboard, only to slowly discover that the mistake he’s made stretches well beyond the confines of his mental hospital. Once it starts costing him lives, he decides its time to find out just what his federal partners are up to with his research. What he inevitably learns will require a payment in blood before all is said and done.
Strauss’ story unfolds on a parallel track with what appears to be stock news reel, old network reporting that dealt with exposure of the controversial program back in its day. From a narrative standpoint, the effect mirrors the then (the past) with the now (Strauss); and while I’ll admit that I found it occasionally distracting I’ll also say it was a device effective for showing just how easy folks can be led to believe something so destructive can be packaged as ultimately meant to provide a service to mankind. As they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions; and that of reporters who stop short of telling the whole story might be viewed as guilty as those who financed and undertook MK ULTRA’s “research.” Sorrentino may’ve not intended that interpretation, but what can I say? I like to think of myself as a freethinker, too.
Mount – a reliable talent I’ve enjoyed since his days as ‘Cullen Bohannon’ in the great, overlooked period drama Hell On Wheels – does an admirable job as the man of science who makes a fateful decision in order to continue his research. His character here doesn’t really have any big moments – it’s an arc of discovery that ends up playing out thematically a bit similar to Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver – but he manages Strauss’ growing frustration alongside his mounting curiosity in the series of vignettes with patients and agents. At the core, his Strauss is a man who demonstrates he just wants to do good with his patients; I think – as a consequence – we could’ve seen a bit more emotion when he discovers he's as much as a pawn here as his test subjects, but, alas, that wasn’t the way Sorrentino envisioned this story.
Actors Jason Patric, Alon Aboutboul, and Matt Nolan play agents of the famed Agency; and they’re each handled a different set of characteristics to define their reasonably brief screen time. Patric seethes of a controlled menace; Nolan – when given the opportunity – acts out on some of the worst vices known to man; and Aboutboul renders a surprisingly layered performance for a mostly-silent ‘videographer’ (he’s paired up with Strauss to document the CIA-sponsored drug trips on film). Of the three, his is the least stereotypical (what can I say? Hollywood has pretty much stuck to the mold when it comes to America’s secret police); and the actor even manages to evoke a measure of pity from this viewer when confronting his own career angst in his final moments of note.
It's good work all around, and – in the end – it elevates a somewhat vague exploration into a dark chapter of America history. While I would’ve ultimately preferred something with more answers, the truth is that perhaps some secrets are best left unknown.
MK ULTRA (aka Midnight Climax) was produced by LB Entertainment and Ten Past Nine Productions. Based on information available to me at the time of writing, the picture is available both theatrically and on demand in major markets. As for the technical specifications? Sorrentino’s film combines both file news footage as well as to craft a compelling potboiler, so don’t be put off by the varying quality of the older stock stuff. While I didn’t find it distracting in the slightest, I thought it appropriate to mention for discerning viewers.
Though MK ULTRA (2022) may not answer as many questions as it raises, there’s still plenty in here to enjoy, including an engrossing main story that tries to adequately mine efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency to plumb the depths of disreputable science in search of mind control. Though not a lot of evidence emerges in this particular tale that they and the doctors who worked with them were well on their way to mastering the mind of man, I’ve no doubt that what we don’t know is probably vastly more alarming than what gets postulated in here … and so much of this is already dark enough.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Cinedigm provided me with complimentary screening access to MK Ultra by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.