Anyone living under a rock over the past eight months, blissfully unaware that the country mismanaged the coronavirus outbreak and caused thousands of unnecessary deaths, would do well to watch “Totally Under Control.” Churned out by prolific documentarian Alex Gibney with co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan over the last few months, this infuriating overview of the government’s response to the virus isn’t revelatory or groundbreaking, but in an era dominated by misinformation, it plays like an essential service to set the record straight.
“Totally Under Control” is far from the first documentary to tackle coronavirus fallout (recent efforts “76 Days” and Ai Weiwei’s “Coronation” reveal the struggle inside Wuhan), but it’s the first serious assessment outside of nightly news shows to illustrate how much America bungled its response. Gibney and his collaborators fold in a lot of material into two hours, from the tick-tock of CDC efforts to downplay the virus and Donald Trump’s lunacy in conflicting science at every turn, to the horrible miscalculations that led to a dearth of tests and PPE supplies. The movie assembles a whirlwind of whistleblowers and disease experts to break down each step of the timeline, lacing it together with smooth editing and ironic music cues that makes the overall experience both absorbing and frustrating, though not surprising in the least.
That’s because many of us have been living through the narrative of “Totally Under Control” as supporting characters for months. The movie begins in early 2020, with events that seem as if they unfurled a decade ago. A montage set to “Time Is on My Side” finds Trump assaulting the left over impeachment, grinning over a trade deal with China, and shrugging off the pressure of an election year. As Gibney narrates the events, they take on a seriocomic tone, with Trump’s bravado registering as ludicrous in light of the events around the corner.
But just as “Totally Under Control” seems as if it’s veering into Michael Moore territory, the movie straightens up and turns to the experts. These include scientists like Georgia Tech’s Dr. Eva Lee and Scott Becker, the CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, who recognized that human-to-human transmission had started much earlier than initial reported suggested. They also include former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius who, with ex-CDC director Tom Frieden, sorted out the nation’s response to H1N1 under the Obama administration and built out a pandemic response team that the next presidency dismantled. And the film also folds in experts from South Korea, where the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on the same as the U.S., who explain why their response was so much more efficient even as they bemoan America’s inability to keep pace.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s summed up in three succinct terms by one of the many informative talking heads: “Blame the manager.” If it sounds almost too easy to place a vast institutional disaster on the failings of one man, “Totally Under Control” makes a foolproof case. Gibney talks us through the managerial dysfunction of the White House’s response, placing the blame at the feet of conservative figures like Christian virologist Robert Redfield and health secretary Alex Azar, who seemed more than willing to step aside when Trump decided to put Mike Pence in charge of the COVID task force.
Then there was that other task force Trump tossed to Jared Kushner to find more PPE, a lame, tossed-off effort that wound up being run by untrained volunteers who couldn’t score a single resource. One of them breaks his NDA to discuss his surreal experiences in Washington for the movie, but the most damning testimony on this front comes from Michael Bowen, the Prestige Ameritech founder and former Trump supporter who offered PPE supplies to the government many times over and breaks down in tears as he recalls how many lives would’ve been saved if someone had listened to him.
Meanwhile, South Korea — having endured a prior coronavirus battle with MERS — acted fast, developing drive-through testing to avoid indoor contamination and quickly instituting nationwide safety procedures. Again, this isn’t news, but presented side-by-side with America’s murky approach, the contrast registers as a gut-punch. Trump throws salt on that wound, turning to people like hydroxychloroquine proponent Vladimir Zelenko in the rush for a cure, and “Totally Under Control” churns alongside this rampant stupidity as the death count rises.
Like a lot of Gibney’s work, the movie unfolds with a polished, straightforward style, though it does acknowledge the unorthodox conditions of its production. The filmmakers mailed cameras to their subjects and spoke to them remotely, with their faces projected onto the lens through an apparatus they call “the COVID cam” (though it looks like a variation on Errol Morris’ Interrotron). The snazziest effect comes as the movie addresses the gradual spread of the disease, with X-ray boxes cropping up over crowd scenes to show the invisible threat of viral droplets percolating through society. It’s a convincing embodiment of the paranoia that many Americans came to understand only once it was too late.
But none of the fancy gimmicky in “Totally Under Control” can top the sheer emotional turmoil on display from its key subjects. The most powerful moment comes from Rick Bright, the former director of the biomedical laboratory BARDA, who tearfully addresses his decision to speak out against a vindictive administration. But he’s not alone, and “Totally Under Control” leaves the impression that if this many people were willing to speak on camera this early in the game, Gibney could have a franchise on his hands by next year.
That’s also why, for all its illuminating information, “Totally Under Control” often feels like too much too soon. As the pandemic rages on, the movie summarizes what may be the first chapter in an epic battle. Even so, it’s a welcome reminder in the midst of a harrowing election season that the people elected to run the country can determine its immediate future at every pressing moment. Blame the manager, indeed. Gibney concludes with an abrupt closing statement and the blunt image of an American flag, struggling to find some silver lining in the potential for the country to learn from its mistakes. But its finest moment arrives with a masterstroke of simplicity — a concise note that one day after the film was completed, Trump tested positive for COVID-19. It’s the perfect endpoint for a story with no end in sight.
Neon releases “Totally Under Control” on VOD on Tuesday, October 13.