Film Review: Totally Under Control


Documentary-making machine Alex Gibney (here joined by co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger) returns with a timely – perhaps too timely – postmortem on the American response to the Coronavirus pandemic, Totally Under Control.

Right from the start, Gibney draws attention to the difficulty of making a documentary during a global pandemic. Cameras are delivered to participants to help them provide their testimony. Sitting rooms are set up with mini-studios, shielding camera operators when present and interviews are conducted remotely.

Using expert opinion and clips from social media and the news that are so fresh that whatever the digital equivalent of newsprint is is still wet, they tell the story of the arrival of a mysterious new virus, through the bungling, the politically callous calculations and the overall lack of leadership that left millions infected, an economy in shreds and a death toll rapidly approaching a quarter of a million.

The big question is: do we really need this? So many of the clips of President Donald Trump attempting to reassure the public with his mad press conferences are so recent as to sound almost like an echo. And even those from way back in the mists of January have been replayed ad nauseum on the internet, late night comedy shows and the evening news. No one has forgotten the sight of mass graves in Brazil or freezer trucks in New York, packed hospital corridors and nurses dressing in bin bags because of a shortage of PPE. In fact, we’re possibly going to be seeing it again in the near future.

And yet, Gibney, Hillinger and Harutyunyan have produced an urgent and powerful film. It clearly lays out a timeline and forcefully shows that no matter how bad you think things were behind the scenes, the truth is they were worse. We see how the first case in the US coincided with the first diagnosis in South Korea. How the two countries reacted and then fared is sobering. There are baffling mistakes like the flubbing of a test roll out which included an unnecessary component which tested for other coronaviruses – remember there are seven coronaviruses, some of which are similar to the common cold.

The insistence of the administration, led by Health and Human Services chief Alex Azar and CDC head Robert Refield, to bypass government in favour of private solutions led to bidding wars, shortages and price gouging. It had its nadir in Jared Kushner’s vanity project: a procurement team for essential supplies staffed by unqualified volunteers. One insider William Kennedy Jr. tells a tale that could have been written by Armando Iannucci if it wasn’t for the fact that real people were dying by the hundreds every single day.

Most valuably, Totally Under Control provides a platform for exactly the experts who the Trump administration sidelined. The frontline doctors, the administrators and experts who repeatedly warned the government of the dangers of inaction and found themselves having to choose between their careers or blowing the whistle and being castigated publically by the President as “a disgruntled employee”.

The “disgruntled employee” in question is Dr. Rick Bright, who had to navigate his way around the administration until he could finally take no more. Doing these usually faceless public servants justice is vitally important. But Totally Under Control somehow feels unfinished. With the election just weeks away, it is too much to hope that a documentary could tip the scales, however it does highlight how this could be described as the first existential US election.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty