Alex Gibney's New Doc Examines "Heart of the Failure" of Trump's Pandemic Response

Totally Under Control Poster
Courtesy of Neon

Back in April, Alex Gibney sadly lost a friend to COVID-19 and another spent two weeks on a ventilator. Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker was receiving a growing number of calls, relating how others were being turned away from emergency rooms or couldn't get tests. Tragically, too many Americans had similar stories. “It seemed like something terribly wrong was happening and we were all helpless trying to get information,” Gibney remembers.

This was the impetus for his unnerving Totally Under Control — streaming on Hulu and available to be viewed for free through Election Day on Neon's web site — which documents how the Trump administration failed to contain COVID-19, which is back on the rise in the U.S. with at least 1,016 deaths and 81,181 new cases on Oct. 28, according to New York Times data. The latest figures suggest that an estimated 9 million cases and 228,000 deaths have been linked to the virus in the U.S.

Last spring Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) already knew he needed to begin a COVID-19 doc; he enlisted Ophelia Harutyunyan (who previously worked with Gibney on Citizen K) and Suzanne Hillinger (American Masters) to join him in directing, and they went to work. “It seemed to me the failure of the federal response posed an existential threat to many people,” he says of his urgency. “People were dying. With an election coming up in 2020, it was important to have this film out in October so that it would afford people who were going to vote an opportunity to really recon with what had happened and how their federal government failed them.”

The directors decided to focus on how the outbreak began in the U.S (the temp title was "100 Days"). “That meant we weren’t in an endless loop of trying to chase everyday news,” Gibney relates. “We thought we would get to the heart of the failure, which was the failure to contain the virus, when it could have been stamped out early.” The film’s title comes from President Trump’s January assertion that the virus was “totally under control” in the United States.

Through interviews and narration, the documentary explores responses including the spread of misinformation, delays in quantifiable testing, and shortages of supplies such as masks. Speakers include former BARDA director Rick Bright, who in May filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration; Mike Bowen, vp of Texas-based medical supply company Prestige Ameritech; health care reporter Caroline Chen of ProPublica; and New York Times White House correspondent Michael D. Shear.

“The people that appear in the film are very brave,” Harutyunyan says, adding that more insiders spoke on background but declined to be featured because they feared consequences that would impact their careers or prompt retaliation that could limit assistance. For instance, she adds, one State official “pulled out at the last minute because [they were] afraid the President could watch the film, see the interview and hurt their State for speaking the truth, because these states was so heavily relying on the federal government for supplies."

Amid the pandemic, the filmmakers — like all filmmakers at that time — were also challenged with how to proceed with production in a safe and responsible way. “We knew we were going to start and finish this film in quarantine,” Hillinger says, explaining that they went about figuring this out while also looking for a high quality filming option.

They started with the creation of what they called a “COVID Cam” system, assembled by the doc’s DP Ben Bloodwell, to remotely record interviews, This was effectively a DSLR camera on a tray, Harutyunyan explains, “with handles attached to a laptop and microphone. The AC would put it together and drop it off on the porch of the [interviewee]. They would just need to bring it inside and turn it on. We would remotely control the interview.” For subjects more comfortable with leaving their homes, the cinematographer would set up the system before the interviewee arrived, hanging shower curtains around them for added protection. In both cases, the subject could just sit down and see the filmmakers on video during their conversation. “We didn't want to bother the subject with [operating the system] when they had to tell this very emotional, important story," Harutyunyan explains.

In addition to the interviews, filming took place at hospitals, labs and other locations. Gibney notes that for the portions of the production shot in South Korea "you had a crew of about five people. That testifies to how successful they were in terms of containing COVID. For our remote interviews, if we did rent an Airbnb, we only had one person.”

Gibney acknowledges that even beyond creating COVID-safe production procedures, Totally Under Control  was “a hard film to make." He calls the five-month schedule “brutal" and notes that everyone was working at odd hours in separate locations — including four editors and everyone involved in postproduction. (Gibney was additionally juggling post on his Agents of Chaos HBO’s documentary miniseries exploring Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election; and serving as an exec producer Kingdom of Silence, Showtime’s feature documentary about journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)

Totally Under Control delivered the filmmakers a final twist the night that the documentary had been completed, when news broke that Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID. “I heard at 2am. Tom Quinn, the head of Neon, gave me a call because he was on the West Coast," Gibney recalls. "It was a shock in some ways, but a shock in terms of timing. ... I was surprised he hadn't gotten it already, frankly.” The team discussed their options and decided to put a card at the end, reporting the news and the timing of the news. “That seemed a way of finishing the film and citing this rather sardonic piece of poetry," Gibney says.

For Hillinger, Totally Under Control offers some broader lessons — to learn “not just who you are voting for but who they might be putting into positions of power. The story of this pandemic has illuminated to Americans just how intimately our lives can be affected by people running our government.”

“The damning part of what the Trump administration has done is undermine trust and faith in science,” says Gibney when asked what it would take for him, personally, to be vaccinated. “I wouldn’t do it on faith just because Donald Trump says it’s ready, but I’d listen to the scientists. If they say it’s ready, then I’m ready to take it."

And through their research, he reports that that science is advancing in terms of developing COVID treatments and work toward a vaccine. “The trick is to focus on what the doctors and scientists are telling us rather than the illusions that our politicians — particularly this administration — would have us believe.

“I think many Americans have been put at physical risk for cynical political reasons,” he concludes, citing the debate over masks as an example. “It's such a basic public safety thing … to tell supporters to put your lives at risk to show that you support me. To me, that's Jim Jones territory.”