The timing really couldn't have been better for 'Totally Under Control', the new documentary on the U.S. pandemic response from filmmakers Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, debuting on digital platforms this week. According to a title card at the end of the film, the documentary was completed the day before President Trump tested positive for COVID-19. For a film that attempts to document the mishandling of the pandemic response in the United States, it couldn't have asked for a better justification for its thesis than an outbreak of the virus in the United States' corridors of power.
Beginning with the week in early January when doctors and medical organisations in the U.S. were made aware of the emergence of COVID-19 in China, the film attempts to chronologically tell how the virus arrived in the United States, and how the response was so woefully mishandled as to cause more than 200,000 deaths so far. In one respect, it's a useful rundown to review as we throttle towards the end of this tumultuous year. On the other hand, the film can't hide the ultimate futility of its attempt, with a story that not only is far from over, but like the virus itself, spreads into many areas of America's political, scientific and civilian life with very few ways to contain it.
Narration written and performed by Gibney is accompanied by new interviews with key figures of the pandemic response who have spoken out against the Trump administration's handling of the situation, along with mountains of news footage and archival interviews. The sheer volume of material available to editors Lindy Jankura and Alex Keipper could have made the film as much a sensory overload as an emotional one, but for the most part, 'Totally Under Control' manages to keep a clear eye on the story it wants to tell, even if that story doesn't really become clear until its final moments.
Alex Gibney's past works are a mixed bag. Some documentaries, such as 'Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief' (2015) and 'We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks' (2013), are genuinely thrilling, while others like 'The Armstrong Lie' (2013) are muddled and frustrating. 'Totally Under Control' sits somewhere in the middle, demonstrating the best and worst of his idiosyncratic style. There's a clarity and directness to the narrative, aided by slick graphics and Gibney's excellent ability to grasp the passage of time. There's also an urgency to the film, moving at breakneck speed from moment to moment, but while this gives the film an energy and immediacy, you also feel like you've been left behind at times.
What is most impressive about 'Totally Under Control' is how quickly and efficiently it has been made. The film opens by demonstrating how it was able to get such candid and personal interviews with its subjects, using well-considered safety measures that protect both the interviewer and interviewee. It's a snapshot of documentary filmmaking in the age of Coronavirus, and there's something quite moving in both how impressed the subjects are at these precautions and how much we have come to accept the new normal of our situation.
Very few of the revelations in the film are new, but the real power is in seeing the timeline laid out. The focus on the film is less on the experience of the everyday American living through the pandemic, or even the science and evolution of the virus itself, but on the political decisions that have turned the pandemic in the U.S. into a catastrophe. At the emotional heart of the film are men and women who tried to do the right thing, either in positions of power or on the front line in labs and hospitals, but were stalled by the confusion, jealousy, mistrust and selfishness of the Trump administration. Images of pompous rallies and nonsensical press conferences are balanced with corridors of patients on ventilators, nurses and doctors collapsing under stress and interview subjects fighting emotional exhaustion and outbreaks of tears. The story at the centre of 'Totally Under Control' is not one of mistakes and misfortune, but of a known danger being highlighted and then wilfully ignored. One could argue that the subjects lean almost entirely in one direction and that the film does not offer a counter-narrative on the side of the government, but with what we know about the Trump administration, and with stories in the film of 20-year-old volunteers having to sign non-disclosure agreements while trying to buy PPE equipment, it's doubtful that they would have lent their voices to the documentary in the first place - and if they had, that they would make any sense anyway.
The story at the centre of 'Totally Under Control' is not one of mistakes and misfortune, but of a known danger being alerted and then wilfully ignored.
The difficulty with the film is in choosing to take on a subject too large for a feature length film, certainly one where the story is very far from a conclusion. As it is, with the exception of a postscript that mentions the damning Bob Woodward interview with Trump that revealed he knew how dangerous the virus could be back in February, the film only goes as far as April. It also sticks almost entirely to the United States, only deviating to look at the handling of the pandemic in South Korea. One can't really blame the documentary for this though - this is an ever-evolving story, and every day brings new revelations more bizarre, befuddling and horrific than the last, and if it had tried to keep up with them all, they would still be trying to finish it. 'Totally Under Control' is a documentary racing against time with its release, to get this information out as soon as possible, the reason for which becomes clear in its final minutes.
For Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger, 'Totally Under Control' serves a similar political purpose to Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (2004): to deliver information they feel is important to the American people in the lead-up to an election. You half-expect Gibney's narration to end with a call to action for its audience. With this immediate purpose, and considering the gravity of the information it delivers, that's as good a reason as any to get the film made and out there as quickly as possible. What that means in the long run is that the film will likely become more a historical document than a document of a historical event. As compelling as the story in the film is, you can feel the other stories weighing heavily on it in their absence. Again, this isn't the film's fault, but it's hard to deny this in the experience of watching it.
Very little of the information in 'Totally Under Control' isn't out there for people to access. There were many moments when my brain resurrected the memory of the various revelations it delivers. Like any solid documentary though, the film collates that information and prepares it into a clear and structured timeline, demonstrating how one bad decision inevitably leads to another. This ends up being its greatest gift - in a year where the world turns upside down not just daily but sometimes hourly, it is useful to be reminded of everything that has come before. 'Totally Under Control' might not be a film that will last, but it's certainly one that feels necessary right now.