Totally Under Control
(USA, 124 min.)
Dir. Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan
Totally Under Control ends with a title card informing viewers that American President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 one day after the film’s completion. It’s the closest that an Alex Gibney film has come to delivering a happy ending.
However, if this poetic justice is new information to anyone watching the documentary, they were likely born after October 2, 2020, or living in a cave for the past year. If, however, one spent January to September 2020 in hibernation and emerged like a yawning bear eager to be apprised of the year’s honey, then the info dump in Totally Under Control does the trick. Directed by Gibney along with Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, Totally Under Control is a densely packed and informative distillation of the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration’s astounding mishandling of the situation. I usually refer to a Gibney film as an “info dump” in the pejorative sense, but it’s a compliment this time.
Totally Under Control chronicles the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and the Trump’s administration’s vehement denial of the escalating pandemic, which experts predicted would inevitably hit North America sooner rather than later. As we know, the Trump administration’s response to COVID was, and remains, the equivalent to that meme of a dog sipping tea in a burning house saying, “This is fine.” This doc eviscerates Trump’s stupidity, machismo, and inaction.
The information comes as a dizzying speed and is overwhelming even if one has heard it all before. The filmmakers assemble a roster of talking heads who were on the front lines of the pandemic in various ways. Interviews occur with elaborate shields separating the directors from their subjects. Novel “COVID cams” aid with remote interviews and the doc admittedly looks seamless for a production made quickly under extraordinary circumstances. One must credit the team for mobilising quickly and securing a diversity of voices with on-the-ground journalist rigour. These interviews seem especially effective when the subjects share a personal spark with the filmmakers who are shrouded in plastic, serving a quick reminder of how starved for connection we all are.
Dr. Taison Bell, COVID ICU Director at the UVA Medical Center in Virginia, speaks to the devastating experience of treating patients and witnessing the virus’s disproportionate effect on BIPOC citizens. Dr. Eva Lee, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Georgia Tech, talks about seeing the canary in the coalmine and the efforts to make the White House recognise the importance of an early lead. There are whistleblowers, disenchanted medical professionals, reporters, and even frustrated businessmen who previously voted for Trump and cannot contain their rage over the Covidiot-in-Chief’s failure to respond.
The President’s rap sheet is indeed extensive. The directors zero in on his belief that the virus would simply go away when other countries, like South Korea, moved swiftly and decisively to contain, test, treat, and trace cases. Meanwhile, Trump’s mania for crowds and ego-boosting numbers receive ample tut-tutting for sending mixed messages and creating super-spreader events when most world leaders listened to experts and enforced social distancing. Then there’s the disastrous case of the faulty COVID tests that account for what the experts refer to as a “lost month” in the USA’s response to the pandemic.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling case among Trump’s seemingly endless acts of nicompoopery is the failure to procure personal protective equipment (PPE). Totally Under Control shows from multiple angles how the most powerful nation on the planet couldn’t provide enough seventy-five cent masks to safeguard nurses, doctors, and front-line workers from the virus. The doc recounts how Team Trump threw out the playbook that the Obama administration left in order to tell future administrations how to handle pandemics after the H1N1 scare, and how Trump and his minions let emergency reserves of PPE expire and go unstocked. More troubling is the testimony from Max Kennedy, a young whistleblower who tells the directors how he worked as a volunteer under Jared Kushner with a team of totally unqualified hands scrambling to get PPE from foreign parties by cold calling them. Further experts share how Team Trump orchestrated bidding wars pitting states against states with the feds driving up the prices in a game of supply and demand to make Trump look good.
One can hardly recount all the charges that Totally Under Control delivers against Trump. This enraging film leaves little doubt that his negligence, refusal to listen to scientists, and engage in misinformation campaigns only exacerbated the tragedy. The film leaves a clear call to action, particularly with a release mere weeks from Election Day, that Americans should not delay and act swiftly where Trump moved sluggishly.
However, the film may actually have little impact on Trump’s future. The doc succinctly conveys the politicization of the pandemic by the Trump administration. Anti-masking and denying the severity of the pandemic is synonymous with support for Trump, as the film shows with its fervent images of members of the Trump faithful coughing on people and asserting their right to be careless. Trump’s brand, as the film shows, is the driving force behind the virus’s reach across America.
The question that underlies Totally Under Control, at least during a screening in 2020, is just exactly who will want to watch the film. With COVID altering nearly every aspect of our lives since March, dominating every news cycle, and leaving us in a constant state of anxious uncertainty, many viewers—or this reviewer, anyway—cannot shake the sense of being overwhelmed daily. The doc doesn’t say much new, yet one can barely watch it without feeling overcome by anger, sadness, and grief. It didn’t have to be this way. Totally Under Control won’t change minds, but if Gibney, Hillinger and Harutyunyan preach to the choir, they do so with a fury that could rouse people from inaction.
Totally Under Control is now on home video.