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Documentary 'Totally Under Control' Recounts Bungled Response To COVID-19

A still from the documentary "Totally Under Control." (Courtesy NEON)
A still from the documentary "Totally Under Control." (Courtesy NEON)

Since we don’t have social calendars anymore, a big part of my day has become deciding how much of it I am going to spend being terrified and sad versus how long I’ll allow myself to get so angry my ears bleed. I could probably do the latter 24/7 most days, but in the interest of self-care, I try to ration it out a bit. “Totally Under Control,” the infuriating new documentary from directors Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, is the kind of movie that really messes with your rage ratio. Shot in secret over the past few months and rushed into theaters (well, virtual ones anyway) ahead of Election Day, it’s a sober, step-by-step recounting of the Trump administration’s catastrophically bungled response to COVID-19. There are no big revelations here, the movie’s mostly stuff we already knew. Yet seeing it all laid out end-to-end like this made me so furious I had to go walk it off for a little while.

Gibney and company begin the picture by showing the safety protocols under which it was shot, with some of the interviewees shipped hi-def cameras they operated themselves at home while others were spoken to from behind giant tents and shower curtains of PPE like Elliott’s house at the end of “E.T.” It’s a striking contrast to the sequences filmed in South Korea with a regular crew, and a lot of the movie is structured as a comparison between the two nations’ responses to the crisis. Both discovered their first patient on the same day back in January. One country trusted their scientists and medical professionals to trace, track and contain the virus. The other bragged, blustered and massaged the markets. South Korea lost 434 of its citizens to COVID-19 and life there has returned nearly to normal. We’re at 215,000 dead with no end in sight.

A still from the documentary "Totally Under Control." (Courtesy NEON)
A still from the documentary "Totally Under Control." (Courtesy NEON)

“Totally Under Control” covers a lot of the same ground as Frontline’s excellent “The Virus: What Went Wrong?” which aired in June, and during certain segments, the timeline can feel a little hurried or incomplete. This sometimes happens with first drafts of history, cranked out after the news has already broken but without much perspective in the rearview. Where the movie excels, however, is in the individual testimonies of its interview subjects, personalizing a crisis that’s too often overwhelmed by numbers and statistics, importantly reminding us that there are still decent people out there trying to do good, even as they’re undercut every step of the way by an incompetent and avaricious administration.

My heart went out to Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority who blew up his career and became the target of presidential harassment for opposing the administration’s snake oil salesmanship regarding hydroxychloroquine. Former Trump voter Michael Bowen is the executive vice president of America’s leading manufacturer of N95 masks, who spent decades warning one administration after another about an impending shortage, only to watch the CDC simply alter their recommended guidelines to say masks weren’t necessary when the crisis finally hit. “At some point, you’ve got to blame the manager,” he says, providing the movie with its mantra.

But by far the most staggering segment follows idealistic young Max Kennedy — RFK’s grandson — volunteering to assist Jared Kushner’s supply chain task force. Turns out Max and a handful of other 20-year-old novices were actually the entire task force, locked in a basement office all day surrounded by multiple TVs blaring Fox News, untrained and assigned to buy personal protective equipment using their own laptops and personal email accounts. The entire chunk of the film devoted to the PPE debacle is the most effective and infuriating, detailing how savvily these hucksters blamed federal failures on the individual states, drove up prices in bidding wars to benefit private companies and demanded humiliating acts of obeisance from local officials in exchange for life-saving supplies. Gov. Baker makes a cameo via speakerphone, while the smirking president gloats to “Charlie” that he’s never going to be outbid.

It’s a stomach-turning moment, but if anything I’m surprised by how easy the movie otherwise takes it on Trump, perhaps out of interest in appearing “fair and balanced” to imaginary audiences that would never watch a movie like this anyway and probably jam their fingers in their ears and shout “FAKE NEWS!” if you even tried to tell them about it. “Totally Under Control” very clearly aspires to be a portrait of businessmen in over their heads whose free market solutions are woefully inadequate for a medical emergency. Yet the film leaves out some of the most bizarre examples of this behavior, like Trump shoving aside scientists in favor of insane infomercial press conferences with CEOs like the My Pillow guy, or his hijacking of daily task force briefings that culminated in his infamous inquiries about injecting disinfectants and shining UV light inside patients' bodies. But then I guess maybe the filmmakers figured that if they tried to include every time Donald Trump said something stupid the movie would be longer than “The Irishman.”

The staggeringly prolific Gibney — this is the third film he’s directed in 2020, with his 239-minute “Agents of Chaos” having just aired on HBO three weeks ago — gets a bad rap from a lot of folks I know in the documentary community for his factory-like output. Indeed, most of his movies aren’t really much more than the books or magazine articles they’re based on read aloud with some slick animated graphics and an ominous, bleep-boop synth score. (I’m still baffled that his 2015 “Going Clear: Scientology & The Prison of Belief” was hailed as a bombshell exposé while containing nothing I hadn’t already read in The New Yorker several years before.)

But he is very good at organizing data, and during a deafeningly noisy time in American life when every day is an information blitzkrieg, sometimes it’s refreshing to have someone just lay out the facts clearly and in chronological order. “Totally Under Control” might not tell you anything you don’t already know, but it does so cogently and with compassion. This is a film worth watching, even if you'll have to go walk around for a while afterward.


“Totally Under Control” is now available on demand and at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room. The Coolidge will host a livestreamed Q&A with directors Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. The film starts streaming on Hulu Friday, Oct. 20.  

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Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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