The Spool / Movies
Doc shows how America failed to get COVID-19 “Totally Under Control”
Gibney's latest piece of docu-journalism is a sharp, but blinkered take Trump's COVID-era failings.
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Alex Gibney’s latest piece of docu-journalism is a sharp, but blinkered take Trump’s COVID-era failings.


In January, as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the US, President Donald Trump infamously told the press, “We have it totally under control.” Now, America has the highest global death toll and numbers among the countries worst affected by COVID-19, with over 215,000 deaths so far and counting. In light of this shocking performance, the new documentary Totally Under Control takes Trump’s words to the fullest extent of their irony.

Directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger provide us with a chronological timeline of events interspersed with interviews of various scientists who worked both in and outside of the federal government to try and lessen the impact of the virus. The result is an incisive look into the incompetence of the federal government which nonetheless fails to interrogate the broader systems which worsened the situation. 

Creating a documentary about the pandemic during said pandemic is clearly a daunting task, and the filmmakers found a pretty interesting solution to that problem. They transport these big ‘COVID Cams’ over to the homes/workplaces of their subjects, interviewing them virtually while still maintaining pristine audio and video quality. This does mean the filmmakers stick with all the footage of interviewees in a single head-on angle; however, they compensate for this by pulling in other footage from speeches, or hospitals, or newspapers. You never feel like you’re just stuck watching someone talk over a Zoom call. 

Much like other work from Gibney, there are some very slick-looking diagrams and illustrations that feel straight out of a sci-fi show and are pretty helpful in visualizing scientific concepts like viral spread. Sometimes the choices feel on the nose, like footage of square-dancing serving as a metaphor for the viral spread, but they’re generally suitable and visually interesting.

On January 20th 2020, both the USA and South Korea recorded their first cases of COVID-19. South Korean scientist Kim Jon-yong explains South Korea’s virus response as a comparison point – how America’s faring with COVID compared to, say, the 2015 MERS outbreak in South Korea. It really works to show what happens when a government responds effectively to a crisis.

Gibney et al. facilitates some interesting discussion of the influence America’s medical technology and previous pandemic response plans play into South Korea’s plans to combat the outbreak, which only accentuates the graveness of the current response. This side-by-side narrative largely disappears in the latter half, which feels a little strange. But there’s more than enough happening on the American side of the story that you can understand why.

Crucially, the filmmakers don’t obsess too much over Donald Trump.

By always clearly signposting the timeline, the structure of Totally Under Control makes it so audiences don’t get lost in the chaos of 2020. This clarity is also present in the critiques as well, as whistleblowers who were present at these failures tell a very clear story of the incompetence and nepotism of the Trump administration. By using a lot of visualization and keeping the science abstracted, they have the space to point out failing after failing – deliberately distinguishing between forced and unforced errors. 

Crucially, the filmmakers don’t obsess too much over Donald Trump. In a lot of post-2016 political media, he can often serve as a bit of a black hole of attention, given his obnoxious personality and plethora of incredibly revealing tweets and statements. We see footage and audio of him, but only to smartly illustrate the weaknesses of his response, rather than just to point and laugh. In fairness, they also include critiques of the Obama administration’s response to previous diseases – but never create a false equivalence between the two.

While the critique of these individuals and institutions is incisive, the systemic analysis is glaringly absent, what analysis exists is rather weak. The filmmakers go into the free-market perspectives of several administration officials, but socialized healthcare is never mentioned, nor are the words ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘capitalism’. 

Taison Bell, a professor of medicine and the one Black person interviewed in the documentary, makes a few mentions of the disproportionate effect of the virus on Black/Latinx/working-class communities, but it feels more like an obligatory glancing blow than the sucker punches delivered about incompetence and nepotism. 

The glaring hole at the centre of Gibney’s film comes from its frustrating insistence on framing the issue as an absolute dichotomy between science and politics. One of the consistent ideas mentioned throughout is that people should have “followed the science” instead of political interests. The doc positions science as this objective and unquestionably good force that should always be followed when science (and its application) is inherently political and has a complicated history – especially in regards to people of colour and disabled people.

This fixation on a simplistic dichotomy of science hamstrings the ability of the filmmakers to make any serious systemic analysis. Instead, they end up talking vaguely about how COVID-19 caused the nation to “descend into division and chaos,” ignoring that these divisions were already present. They will mention systemic racism and the focus on the state not spending money, but refuse to join the dots and talk about disaster capitalism. The problem isn’t even that they have the wrong opinion, per se — it’s that they don’t seriously consider these issues at all, neglecting to interview a qualified person to talk about them.

Totally Under Control is a well-constructed and effective documentary, clearly laying out the many failures of the Trump administration in responding to the crisis we all find ourselves in. At the same time, it lacks the bite it could have by never digging into the systems which enable and aggravate the effect it has on communities across the country. In any case, you’ll probably leave this documentary with more reasons to hate the man in the Oval Office.

Totally Under Control comes to Hulu October 20th.

Totally Under Control Trailer: