'Totally Under Control': Film Review

Totally Under Control Poster
Courtesy of Neon
A calm indictment of lethal presidential incompetence.
10/9/2020

Alex Gibney recruits codirectors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan for a pre-election look at America's COVID-19 experience under President Donald Trump.

There's no doubting why Totally Under Control, a doc about a pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight, would be released — first in drive-ins, then VOD, then on Hulu — in the weeks leading up to the presidential election: Directors Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan believe, as all fact-valuing people do, that the current administration has fared so badly in 2020 that a new one must be brought in to clean up the mess.

But if the film's title is an ironic use of Trumpian bluster, it also accurately represents the movie itself, which is about as far as you can get from Michael Moore-style agitprop while still having a red-blooded interest in this country's continued existence: The filmmakers avoid insulting a politician who deserves anything they might wish to sling at him, opting instead to let facts speak for themselves.

Many of us will have zero need to watch the result. Unlike the Enron scandal, the charade of Scientology or the crimes of Catholic priests, topics the prolific Gibney has summed up in the past, we've had little choice but to study this horror show in minute detail for the last seven months or more. But we continue to be reminded that many Americans live in alternate realities, where information about actual events is unreliable at best. If such a person were, miraculously, to choose to watch Totally Under Control — perhaps after seeing this president's handling of his own illness and wondering if all is not quite right — the film is sober and straightforward enough that their mind might be changed. Here's hoping.

Upon its conclusion, most viewers will react with some variant of "but what about — ?" The film barely mentions the way lawmakers have tried and failed to address the pandemic's horrifying economic consequences, for instance (cancel rent for those who can't pay!), and only one scene, with University of Virginia ICU director Taison Bell​, meaningfully discusses why the disease is hitting some communities much harder than others.

But a generous viewer may conclude that whittling down the focus serves the film's purposes well. Here, we're most interested in how the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic compares to that of South Korea, which logged its first COVID case on the same day America's first patient was registered in Seattle.

So the film takes a largely, but not exclusively, ticking-clock approach, beginning in January when American public-health officials started paying attention to what was happening in Wuhan. Unsurprisingly, those still employed by the government refused to be interviewed on camera. The closest we get is Rick Bright, the public health official whose whistleblower complaint about failures to acknowledge the threat early on got him reassigned to a less impactful job. (This week Bright finally resigned, saying the administration had prevented him from doing his job in any meaningful way.)

Relying largely on journalists and on medical experts outside the government, the filmmakers dig into crucial failures in the first months of the year: the test kits that were faulty, but might've helped anyway if agencies hadn't limited their use; the scrambled messaging about how dangerous the virus would be; interagency communication problems summed up by this understated quote: "I realized that the FDA and the CDC maybe hadn't talked a ton."

We hear how the Obama administration, after stumbles during public health crises, formed a Global Health Security Team that would be disbanded by Trump. Bright discusses the exercise, done just last year, that warned about some of the very mistakes the administration would make in handling a virus.

From a February 28 rally at which Trump calls the coronavirus a "hoax" invented by political opponents, the film occasionally checks in to observe how he downplayed dangers, exaggerated (or invented) successes and lied outright throughout the pandemic. But even in its use of this material, the film shows more restraint than many viewers would. Only in one scene, which shows Trump golfing (with foley effects) while Mike Pence and Robert R. Redfield encourage Americans to keep going on cruises and Disneyland vacations, is the disgust impossible to hide.

Most of these episodes will be painfully fresh in viewers' memories, but in a couple of cases, on-camera interviews make failures more vivid. There's Michael Bowen, the manufacturer of medical supplies, who all but begged the administration to place a big order for N95 masks before their scarcity was an acknowledged crisis. Bowen voted for Trump in 2016. You get the idea he won't do it again.

And there's Max Kennedy, Jr., grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, who volunteered to help when the unqualified Jared Kushner was tasked with leading a supply-chain task force. The twentysomething thought he'd be part of a crew of youngsters assisting veteran public servants; instead, as he describes it, the kids were the task force, trying to teach themselves about how government procurement works while hospitals and states begged the feds for help.

Kennedy's tale tidily shows how, despite Trump's self-packaging as a businessman who knows how to make deals and get things done, he was completely unqualified to run a government. Millions of us have known that for a long time. Millions of others are still in denial. As Trump segues this week from a metaphorical belcher of toxic gases to a literal one, more than 210,000 gravestones stand as evidence of his willful incompetence. In South Korea, which was in full test-and-trace mode by the end of January, 422 people have died.

Production company: Jigsaw Productions
Distributor: Neon
Directors-Producers: Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger, Ophelia Harutyunyan
Executive producers: Alison Ellwood, Mark Lampert, Andrew Morrison, Michael Sacks
Director of photography: Ben Bloodwell
Editors: Lindy Jankura, Alex Keipper
Composers: Brian Deming, Peter Nashel

124 minutes