The raging tire fire that is 2020 seems to have a fresh gallon of kerosene dumped on a weekly, if not daily, basis, caused by the global pandemic known as COVID-19. Filmmaker Alex Gibney, who stood up to Enron, the CIA, WikiLeaks, and Scientology in past films, has documented those who held the extinguishers and the matches for the past few months. In Totally Under Control, Gibney presents us with a comprehensive timeline of the many missteps made in the U.S. of the Coronavirus response.
The title refers to United States President Donald Trump’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” messages sent to the very public he was sworn to protect. After losing hundreds of thousands of lives (and counting), an economy resting on eggshells, and stoking a growing chasm between its citizens, neither Trump nor COVID, shows any signs of remorse or slowing down.
Totally Under Control exhaustively chronicles the pandemic timeline, beginning in January when the president was briefed on the virus and revealed to writer Bob Woodward he knew that it was “…also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” The documentary wrapped just before the White House announced the president himself contracting the virus and slips that nugget in an irony-tinged postscript that would make Alanis Morrisette jealous.
Within its two-hour runtime, Gibney, along with co-directors Ophelia Harutyunya and Suzanne Hillinger, hear from countless health officials directly responsible for handling this and previous viruses through roles with the CDC, FDA, and prior administrations (which were able to contain deadly viruses despite admitted errors). They are people who have spent their entire careers studying the nature and behavior of such outbreaks who are repeatedly contradicted by a man who tried to convince the public that bleach could be a possible method to combat it.
“…presents us with a comprehensive timeline of the many missteps made in the U.S. of the Coronavirus response.”
Undermining science was only one of the many forced errors made during the handling of the pandemic, as the film documents. Aside from being a thorough recounting from those in the field, the movie still manages to contain revelatory moments, such as the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s overseeing of the slapdash purchasing of personal protective equipment for the country’s healthcare workers. Additionally, Totally Under Control is to be lauded for the sheer audacity as a journalistic endeavor. Not only did they have to sift through the countless mixed messages about the virus itself, but conducting interviews with those on the front line during a highly infectious pandemic posed strategic quagmires as well.
Additionally, the film offers insight into our ineptitude by contrasting the U.S. response with South Korea, which sprung into action immediately and left the heavy lifting to the scientists. In contrast, the United States decided all the virus needed was a large injection of politics, followed by doses of xenophobia.
While we are still shuffling through this hellscape and the deluge of delinquency in dealing with COVID-19 clogs our newsfeeds, a film meticulously documenting the various ways we are currently in such dire straits may seem like the last thing we wish to see. But the filmmakers have crafted an urgent watch that demands to be seen.
In the future, when students are attending history classes in their hermetically sealed learning chambers, hologram teachers will break from defining antiquated words like “handshake,” “buffet,” and “escape rooms” to screen Totally Under Control to show them just how we got there. The only trouble will be having them believe that it’s not fiction.
"…still manages to contain revelatory moments..."