REVIEW: Totally Under Control [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 123 minutes
    Release Date: October 13th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan & Suzanne Hillinger
    Writer(s): Alex Gibney

Politics got in the way of science.

Documentaries like Alex Gibney (who also wrote), Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger‘s Totally Under Control have a tendency of falling prey to their activism. And being that this film specifically was shot, packaged, and released in just a handful of months before a very contentious United States presidential election only augments that potential. Because how much information about the COVID-19 pandemic is there that we don’t already know? How does putting what we do together into a cohesive, well-researched piece facilitate much-needed education on the subject and how does it conversely serve as a political endeavor in its own right by placing blame at the feet of a man seeking a second term in office atop many of the policy positions laid bare? It’s a very slippery slope.

But let’s face the truth: Gibney and company could be as objective and apolitical in this exercise as humanly possible and still get labeled activists and liars by those who support Donald Trump. Why would anyone think differently if all those same people are praising him despite what’s happened these past seven months with a tanked economy and 222,000 deaths at present? They’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and they are reaching for another glass. New York and California are two of just a handful of states not spiking currently and I have family members still railing against “King Andrew” for “infringing upon their freedom” as though the governors who took this crisis seriously are somehow the ones doing everything wrong. It’s a complete refusal to look with open eyes.

That right there proves how Totally Under Control couldn’t be a hit piece even if its creators tried. We aren’t of an era or political climate that can be swayed by facts (or lies for that matter) when so many of us have chosen our side according to (or despite) them. Maybe some voters on the fence will see this timeline and have their light bulb moment to either understand many deaths could have been prevented or burrow further into the delusion that we’ve somehow been caught in a “false flag” scenario only conspiracy theorists are able to expose. But even then that’s not why the filmmakers have gone through the effort to provide such a comprehensive look at how America’s supposed world leader could look so inept.

No. This is about posterity. This is about getting people on record while it’s all still happening to ensure nothing is lost or confused. It’s about cementing a narrative before any presumed cover-ups lead us away from the truth. And I think Gibney, Harutyunyan, and Hillinger do a fantastic job accomplishing exactly that. To have Rick Bright walk us through bureaucratic hypocrisy, Max Kennedy blow the lid off Jared Kushner’s task force sham, and Eva Lee layout predictive models is damning. Add Beth Cameron confirming Trump’s administration was briefed on the Obama-era pandemic guidebook, Bright giving details about the Crimson Contagion pandemic drill that was ignored, and journalists who watched everything spiral out of control and it becomes almost impossible to believe there’s a way back from oblivion.

Where hope does lie, however, is in the work done by experts and medical professionals. While the crosscuts from the US to South Korea (whose first confirmed case occurred on the same day as ours despite a completely different response that saved thousands of lives thanks to new laws enacted a couple years earlier) are undeniable in their evidence of mismanagement, the men and women on the ground fighting tooth and nail aren’t forgotten. We ultimately discover that they were fighting on two fronts simultaneously: the virus and the government slow-walking a response they desperately needed to succeed. A lot of talk surrounding the first round of faulty tests placed blame squarely on the CDC, but now we see their mistake actually positioned them as patsies.

No one should be surprised by this revelation considering Trump and his loyalists have passed the buck consistently since well before his inauguration. The former reality TV host is even on tape saying that he takes no responsibility because he believes himself to be insulated. When something good happens: he takes credit. When something bad happens: it was someone else’s fault. And we see this dangerous lack of accountability take center stage here as those willing to speak truth to the public are silenced, fired, or loudly and falsely discredited for their trouble. You wouldn’t be wrong to think Trump sowed chaos and destruction for no other reason than weeding out those who won’t take a bullet for him—figuratively or otherwise. He leads with fear, not strength.

So it is important when Prestige Ameritech owner Michael Bowen goes on record to say he voted for Trump. It’s important because it shows how there’s room to stop being afraid. He probably supported the president for many of the reasons others have: tax breaks, corporate incentives, and conservative values. It’s why he tried so hard to contact the White House and tell them he could make more PPE—seven million N95 respirators a month—without a reply. Canaries were falling dead on a daily basis with warnings, figures, and pleas, but nothing was done to stem the tide. Executive orders angling for headlines and sound-bytes without plans for implementation weren’t therefore solutions. For many Americans they became preventable death sentences for which they’ll never receive an apology.

Rather than move the voter gauge, this documentary is primed to move the historical conversation that will continue to be written over the next decade or more. This is the starting line—the initial overview that researchers and journalists can use to work their way into the cracks to find other crucial stories that must be told. And it only makes sense that it was created remotely courtesy of portable camera units used for interviews. Like so many of us working from home and using technology to keep our bills paid, Gibney, Harutyunyan, and Hillinger embraced the safety protocols our president still won’t to supply an on-the-ground exposé at a time of isolation and quarantine. They saw a story demanding to be told and dared to tell it.

courtesy of Neon

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