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VOD Review: Totally Under Control

October 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Alex Gibney is an award-winning documentarian whose films have explored hot button topics ranging from the United States government’s use of torture in his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the sleaziness of the Church of Scientology in Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and the dark side of the late Apple founder in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

Now Gibney turns his attention to the very timely issue of COVID-19 in Totally Under Control, which covers events from roughly January to September of this year, with the focus mainly being kept on the American federal government’s failure to get a handle on the deadly pandemic under the leadership of President Donald Trump.

Named for Trump’s erroneous early assertions that they had the virus “totally under control,” which we would later find out was a lie meant to assuage the fears of the American people, the documentary offers a comprehensive overview of the federal government’s bungled approach to stopping the spread of the virus. While there isn’t much in the way of new information here, it’s compiled in a clear and concise way that makes it, at the very least, a valuable historical document.

With COVID-19 still very much being a part of our lives, Totally Under Control is also impressive for how it has been pulled together with such a tight turnaround. Seeing as it was assembled entirely in the midst of this ongoing global pandemic, Gibney and his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger had to take extra precautions to conduct the talking head interviews that make up the bulk of the film. Some of the subjects are interviewed from behind plastic shower curtains with a hole cut out for the camera, while others were sent a camera on a rig so they could film themselves and be interviewed remotely by the filmmakers, and it’s fascinating to observe this approach.

At the time of this writing, over two hundred thousand Americans have died from the novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which first emerged in Wuhan, China at the end of last year. The United States now has one of the highest reported death tolls in the world, but as Totally Under Control lays out, it didn’t have to be this way. Gibney, who also narrates the film, brings together a slate of doctors and scientists to shine a spotlight on the various policy failures of the Trump administration in handling the pandemic, since the first American case was confirmed in Seattle back in January.

The Trump administration did make the right call in imposing travel restrictions from China at the end of January, which is a move that, it’s worth noting for the sake of full objectivity, was initially opposed by some Democrats as discriminatory. But their actions from that point on were lacking, from ignoring the pandemic playbook that was left to them by the Obama administration, to compiling a heavily partisan pandemic response team headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and frequently ignoring the advise of their own experts. We see at points how the scientists would say one thing, only to be contradicted by members of the administration within the same press conference.

The country was also left with a nationwide shortage of N95 masks, forcing doctors and nurses to reuse their masks, as the government hastily tried to replenish their depleted national stockpile. One of the film’s subjects is Max Kennedy, who was part of a team of inexperienced volunteers that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put in charge of trying to secure crucial PPE. Kennedy was forced to sign an NDA, but broke it to became a whistleblower, laying bare the government’s inaction. Kennedy understandably seems somewhat nervous speaking to the camera.

A more personal perspective on the devastating effects of the virus comes from Taison Bell, an African-American doctor in Virginia who treated patients on the frontlines, and talks about the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on people of colour. Throughout the film, Gibney questions how a country as advanced as the United States did such a poor job of handling this pandemic. He often looks to South Korea as a positive example of how a country was able to leave decision making to the experts and nip the virus in the bud, without hurting their economy too much through a full lockdown.

Aside from this, Totally Under Control doesn’t really go into detail about how COVID-19 was handled in other places around the world, including Europe, which keeps it from offering a more global picture of the pandemic. The film also doesn’t really get into how other branches of the US government handled things, aside from briefly talking about how Governors were left fighting the federal government to secure ventilators for their states. I also wish that more attention had been paid to New York City, an early epicentre of the virus, including Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous executive order forcing nursing homes to accept infected patients, which isn’t mentioned at all.

As much as the inadequate response to the Coronavirus crisis represents a failure of leadership on behalf of the Trump administration, it also represents a failure of messaging. Trump’s continual downplaying of the virus has proved particularly disastrous in terms of sowing public mistrust, with the virus being turned into a political issue. For example, the fact that the wearing of masks, which by all measures is a simple, common sense way of stopping the spread of the virus, has become a left versus right issue, is one of the most frustrating things to come out of this pandemic.

In the final minutes of the film, Gibney addresses the leaked audio that was released last month from an interview with journalist Bob Woodward that proves Trump not only knew the virus was airborne as far back as February 7th, but also that it was far deadlier than the flu. Trump also admits on tape that he was publicly saying the opposite so as not to cause panic. In the more solemn parts of that interview, when discussing the lethality of the virus, Trump actually sounded more serious than he has in almost any of his public addresses concerning COVID-19, and if had struck that tone with the public early on, it could have stopped some of his supporters from acting like it was no big deal.

Ironically, it was Trump’s fears about his re-election prospects that caused him to downplay the virus in the first place, and now this is the very thing that could easily cost him the presidency. Back in January, when the economy was still booming and unemployment was at a record low, it looked like Trump would win a second term. But now, with just a few weeks to go until the election on November 3rd, he could very well be defeated by Joe Biden, and his botched handling of this pandemic will almost single-handedly be his downfall.

The American government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis will be debated and talked about for years to come, and the story is still very much unfolding. A hastily added title card at the end tells us that the film was literally completed a day before Trump himself tested positive for the virus and ended up being hospitalized. While Totally Under Control obviously doesn’t offer a complete picture of the pandemic, it’s still an exhaustive, informative and often infuriating look at the American government’s failures to control a virus that they should have done a better job of reigning in.

Totally Under Control is now available on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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