Given that it lays out in unsparing terms the extent of a staggering American failure that ranks up there with 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, “Totally Under Control” is a surprisingly calm piece of work. A damning account of how the greatest technological, scientific, and military power on the planet laid down and allowed a pandemic to march right over it, the documentary is filled with eyewitnesses to the clown show who still don’t appear able to process what they saw. Towards the end, when they start realizing just how monumentally unwilling the American government was to muster even minimal interest in warding off a deadly disease with a modicum of professionalism and efficiency, a few begin to choke back tears of anger and disbelief. In a country where the movie could be safely watched in a theater, audience members would be tempted to hurl their shoes at the screen.
Assembled by co-directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger in what feels like record time, “Totally Under Control” starts out trying to answer one question laid out by Gibney in his clipped narration, “Why?” The movie that follows is a searing indictment of the vile plutocrats and their toadies who let ideology, demagoguery, and inattention divert the nation from what was actually a pretty cut-and-dried response to a predicted threat. But it does not manage to answer that question.
Structured as a straightforward news-y tick-tock, the movie addresses its catastrophic topic with a cool and no-nonsense tone (putting it in strong contrast to Gibney’s far more stylized and agitated two-parter on the Russia-Trump-election nexus, “Agents of Chaos,” running on HBO now). It efficiently sorts out the deluge of data that has poured out of our screens since the rumors of a novel coronavirus wreaking havoc in China began circulating in early January 2020. The directors interview numerous medical professionals and researchers, as well as government officials like Rick Bright—former head of BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority)—and Obama administration Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to determine exactly when the response started to go wrong.
Nearly right away, it seems. Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield was informed by his Chinese counterpart on January 3 that COVID-19 was spreading in their borders, there was a shocking lack of interest from the administration in tackling the problem. One might think that this relaxed attitude was based on confidence. After all, in October 2019 the federal government had run an exercise called Crimson Contagion which role-played an outbreak of disease quite like COVID-19 and established several key mistakes to avoid. Also, the Barack Obama administration just so happened to have left Donald Trump’s White House a detailed playbook for managing a pandemic that developed after a close-up experience with MERS and Ebola.
Unfortunately for everybody, the exercise was ignored and the playbook appears to have been tossed into the same dumpster where Trump’s staff threw the binders that Chris Christie’s transition team had painstakingly filled with qualified people to staff the administration. According to the filmmakers and their interviewees, as COVID-19 began spreading widely through America, Trump’s henchpeople—the ones not included in those binders—gummed up the works with ineptitude, hackery, and partisan blindness. In a smart move, the documentary focuses less on the camera-facing figures like Redfield and Deborah Birx (who appeared to be prized more for their fidelity to a certain kind of religiosity than medical proficiency) than the behind-the-scenes failures that really produced the tragedy.
In segments that volley from inexplicable to infuriating, front-line doctors and researchers describe how bureaucratic snafus at the CDC kept America from matching the necessary rapid testing that countries like South Korea ramped up immediately (the end result being less than 500 dead in a country of over 50 million). Obsessed with not spooking the stock market and pretending everything was “totally under control,” Trump and his people did as little as possible to address the spread. “Ignorance of medical advice,” Gibney notes with quiet fury, “was seen as a patriotic act.”
When the White House did jump in, it was usually “too little, too late” as Gibney describes when they finally tried to address shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). In that instance, in particular, the movie shows how incompetence met free-market fanaticism. As whistleblower and volunteer, Max Kennedy recalls, instead of drawing on the government’s massive logistical capabilities, Jared Kushner’s ad-hoc team—which got in the way of Vice President Mike Pence’s team, which itself got in the way of the existing government medical infrastructure—threw a handful of untrained consultants with laptops at the problem and got nowhere. The failure was so widespread and avoidable that even an initially Trump-supporting businessman like Mike Bowen, the owner of a Texas mask manufacturer who tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to offer help, tells the interviewer, “You got to blame the manager.”
Focusing primarily on the pandemic’s opening act in the first half of 2020, “Totally Under Control” feels fresh off the editing table. It is so timely, in fact, that an on-screen note at the end informs viewers that one day after it was completed, Trump tested positive for COVID-19. It reads like a punchline to the least funny joke ever told. [A-]
“Totally Under Control” arrives on VOD on October 13 and on Hulu on October 20.