In Totally Under Control, now streaming on Hulu, celebrated documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room) takes viewers on a sobering trip backward, revisiting in nearly real time the year when The United States of America was wholly conquered by COVID-19.
The Gist: Totally Under Control begins many years ago, in an era also known as January 2020, and it’s surreal to see shots of people drinking in bars shoulder to shoulder, or reporters crowding into the White House briefing room. As it tracks the early stages of the virus, Gibney’s film begins to bring in the experts who either saw the pandemic coming or ended up trying to contain it, the researchers, laboratory directors, medical doctors and public health officials who were tasked with pushing back destruction but given very few tools to do it. And as we relive the catchwords and soundbites of the last several months, a pattern of deliberate indifference by the Trump government emerges. We hear about how the administration ignored the pandemic playbook assembled by Obama-era officials, how its raft of political appointees were unprepared or unwilling to deploy their agencies in an attempt at virus management, and of its refusal to confront the reckoning that was already before it. “People have died because of the mismanagement,” a doctor says of the federal government’s response. “I have absolutely no doubt about that.”
Control plays out a sad string of facts. We learn of a young volunteer on Jared Kushner’s “response team” who was left to procure pallets of supplies and navigate reams of government payment protocols with no guidance and empty promises. We meet the lone US-based maker of N95 masks who was railroaded by the feds. We learn of Trump’s plan to “blame the states.” We see how hard science was perpetually muzzled in favor of political gain. And finally we are shown the central fact of the Trump presidency: that personal fealty is valued over professional experience, even as the death toll rises. It gets pretty dim. Totally Under Control is like a nightmare patchwork of every scary COVID headline from the past ten months.
Performance Worth Watching: Dr. Rick Bright, the immunologist and public health official who blew the whistle on the administration’s pandemic mismanagement after his dire warnings were ignored. As a professional and bureaucrat who was in the room as COVID tightened its grip on the country and its healthcare apparatus, Bright’s clear-eyed assessment of the government’s manifold failures is as refreshing as it is bleak.
Memorable Dialogue: There are myriad damning phrases. “The delusion was that the first COVID patient was the only one…” “…A White House interested in packaging science for partisan goals…” and of the moment when the country reached 100,000 deaths, “A terrifying marker for the failure of the American response.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Inside the confined space of a two-hour documentary, the psychological violence 2020 has wrought is a real shot to the dome. From its opening notes, Gibney’s doc acknowledges that nature unleashed COVID-19 upon humanity. But it also indicts the Trump administration for distorting our reality, specifically and relentlessly. The euphemistic couplets the president has leaned on since the pandemic began — the film’s very title, or the infamous “It’s like a miracle; it’ll just disappear” — are here uttered over sobering montages of sick people in hospital wards coughing their guts out and sucking on respirators as healthcare professionals drift around them in protective shrouds. As a chyron ticks out each unfortunate month since the start of the pandemic, Totally Under Control ties its narrative of the federal government’s failure at containment to a litany of talking head interviews with exasperated frontline doctors and disillusioned government officials, who all offer a variation on the same theme: the feds tied their hands, the government wouldn’t listen, Trump denied the science. For those of us who have lived through this most difficult of years, it’s a rough ride through recent memory. But it’s also valuable to have 2020 read back in this fashion. In that sense, it’s a document of remembrance.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Totally Under Control tells an unfortunate story of bureaucratic indifference to an invisible killer. It’s a significant early entry in what will likely be a busy category in the next few years, as filmmakers and reporters and storytellers reckon with the how’s and why’s of what down in 2020.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
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