Watching a documentary about the COVID19 pandemic in the middle of the COVID19 pandemic may not sound appealing, but you owe it to yourself to see Totally Under Control. This shot-in-secret work is easily the most essential non-fiction film of 2020. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), working with co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, compares the American government's response to COVID19 to the response of South Korea's government, then delves into the string of failures that made it worse here. The basic gist: they did everything right, we did everything wrong.
Using verifiable facts – including news reporting, interviews with infectious disease experts, and testimony from Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority – Totally Under Control establishes a vital day-by-day timeline of notable events. The U.S. and South Korea identified their first cases at almost exactly the same time. That other country immediately implemented mass testing, among other measures. Very quickly, they contained the spread, with no negative impact on the economy. The government trusted the scientists, deferring to their recommendations.
The exact opposite happened in America, where COVID19 became politicized. The movie shows the series of politically-motivated decisions that allowed the spread to advance. Among them: 1.) The initial task force assembled by the Trump Administration had only one medical expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. The rest were businessmen and lawyers. 2.) Another task force, assembled by Jared Kushner, consisted of volunteers in their early twenties, with no experience. One of those volunteers (Robert F. Kennedy's grandson, no less) is interviewed on-camera, and his behind-the-scenes observations are enraging. 3.) Information given out by government agencies, including the CDC, had the language softened to present a rosier picture to the public than was actually the case.
You may think you already know all that. Even so, there's such an abundance of material in Totally Under Control that no matter how closely you've followed the pandemic news, you'll almost certainly hear things you didn't know. What makes it extra potent is that the experts go into precise detail. There aren't just facts, but context put to those facts so that we fully understand why they're significant. When you see it all assembled over two (very fast) hours, the impact is undeniable.
Two interview subjects really stand out. One is Michael Bowen, a Trump-supporting businessman who makes medical supplies. He urged the administration to order an abundance of N95 masks, which they failed to do, leading to a tragic shortage. Based on the outrage he expresses, it's pretty clear he may regret the way he voted in 2016. The other is Bright, a whistleblower who spoke out against Trump's provable failure to act during a critical early stage of the virus, and was retaliated against as a result. He directly attests to the pressure from within to avoid facts that might make Trump look bad, even if they pose a risk to the public.
Totally Under Control, which gets its name from Trump's oft-repeated lie about COVID19, plays like a thriller, with a propulsive pace and on-screen graphics tracking specific dates. Gibney and collaborators aren't being partisan, though they do make a difficult-to-refute case that Trump's concern about his polling numbers dictated America's response to the virus. That thought is horrifying and enraging. The end of the pandemic is nowhere in sight. The movie makes it crystal clear that things didn't need to be this bad.
It bears repeating: Things didn't need to be this bad.
out of four
Totally Under Control is unrated, but contains some adult language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.