Most documentaries take years to make, as filmmakers follow their subjects trying to piece together a specific story or, as is often the case, find the story as filming goes along. Totally Under Control is a wholly different experience, as it’s an of-the-moment retelling of how the Trump administration handled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, something that is evolving even as we speak.
Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side); Ophelia Harutyunyan; and Suzanne Hillinger, the film uses contemporary reporting on the pandemic along with a series of carefully orchestrated, socially-distant interviews with experts and Trump administration insiders. Among them are Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services under Barack Obama; Taison Bell, a frontline doctor; Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert under Trump who became a whistleblower; and Max Kennedy, who volunteered to try to secure needed personal protective equipment under the leadership of presidential advisor Jared Kushner.
The thesis of the film — that President Trump and his administration have bungled nearly every opportunity to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the United States — should be clear to anyone who’s paid attention to the news in 2020. But even those who think they know the depth of the administration’s mistakes will still feel the impact of all of them laid bare in the no-nonsense manner demonstrated in the film.
The above interviewees have some of the most damning testimony, especially since two of them — Bright and Kennedy — were in the position to help directly, and wound up shocked and dismayed at the ineptitude of those supposedly in charge. Each bore witness to moments where their supervisors and others made decisions that either did little to help the American public, or worse, actively put them at risk merely because doing the right thing would be admitting they did something wrong.
The filmmakers also go to great pains to compare the U.S. response to that of South Korea, as both countries recorded their first COVID-19 cases on the same day. While the U.S. took its time ramping up testing and employing any other widespread preventative measures, the South Koreans moved quickly to identify cases, trace the contacts of those infected, and isolate people accordingly. After an early spike, South Korea has rarely exceeded more than 100 confirmed cases per day, whereas the U.S. hasn’t gone below 25,000 cases per day since mid-June.
The speed in which the film was made does have its limitations, though. Although it includes some recent revelations, including Trump’s interview with Bob Woodward in which he admits he knew more than he revealed to the public, the bulk of the film details moments in the first four months of the year. This obviously leaves out any number of things that transpired in the past five months, something which future films will be able to use to their advantage.
The stream of talking heads also makes for somewhat dull viewing. Although they each have some interesting tidbits to add, none of what they reveal is in any way shocking because the news of the pandemic has been the focus of all of 2020. What they have to say just reinforces everything we’ve learned this year, and none of it is good.
Totally Under Control is yet another indictment of the Trump administration in a year that has been full of them. Only time will tell if it’s a film that helped shed light on all that has gone wrong, or if it will be swept to the side in our never-ending chaotic news cycle.
Totally Under Control is now available via Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, GooglePlay, and FandangoNow.