VOD film review: Totally Under Control
Facts: 8: 8: 88
Matthew Turner | On 24, Oct 2020
Directors: Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger, Ophelia Harutyunyan
Cast: Scott Becker, Taison Bell, Michael Bowen, Rick Bright, Beth Cameron, Caroline Chen, Tom Frieden, Alex Greninger
Watch Totally Under Control online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
Completed the day before Trump announced he’d tested positive for coronavirus and released in the run-up to the presidential election, this gripping documentary explores America’s response to the pandemic and finds it decidedly wanting. The film’s forensic, probing approach is exactly what you’d expect from the work of prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, who here co-directs with Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, presumably to spread the workload.
Gibney, who receives a sole writing credit on the film, structures the documentary chronologically, beginning back in January of this year, when both the US and South Korea logged their first cases of Covid-19. Throughout the film, Gibney contrasts the approaches taken by both countries, who had the same amount of time to respond to what would become a devastating global pandemic. You only have to turn on the news to see the results, but at the time of writing, the death toll for Korea stands at 455, while in the US it’s 223,000 and rising.
Gibney combines talking heads, newsreel footage and the occasional digital reconstruction – such as an effect showing how the virus spreads in the air – to chart the failings of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic over the past 10 months, helped considerably by an unshowy but effective timeline graphic.
The film goes out of its way to highlight the social distancing measures in the filming procedure, from sending sterilised camera and recording equipment to interviewees to filming from inside specially built plastic tents. This set-up gives the film a powerful sense of immediacy, reinforcing the fact that we are still living with both the virus and Americans are still living with the day-to-day consequences of the Trump administration’s incompetence.
Gibney and his co-workers have assembled an impressive array of talking heads, including journalists, government insiders, medical experts, virologists and whistle-blowers. The sense of despair emanating from each of them by the end of the film is palpable, as they cycle through revelation after revelation. Several moments stand out, from volunteer Max Kennedy Jr’s experiences on the Jared Kushner task force (where it’s crystal clear that no one knows what they’re doing) to public health official Rick Bright tearing up as he tells how he effectively lost his job for speaking out against the administration.
To that end, one of the biggest shocks comes early on, with a wealth of detail on Crimson Contagion, the global pandemic model report – carried out just last year – that accurately predicted many of the issues that were subsequently ignored by the administration. There are a number of sobering facts and figures, not least the fact that the US accounts for 4 per cent of the world’s population but 20 per cent of coronavirus deaths worldwide.
Throughout the film, the same problems recur time and again. Primarily concerned with his re-election, Trump is only worried about the economy and when the administration actually is in a position to help – with the dispersal of medicine or PPE, for example – it instead prioritises profit over saving people’s lives, or uses the supplies to score points over political opponents, eg. Trump refusing to help the governor of California until he thanks him publicly on TV.
Perhaps wisely, rather than have the talking heads directly criticise the President, the film lets the Trump clips speak for themselves, whether it’s him pointedly not wearing a mask at a mask factory (while Live and Let Die plays on the soundtrack) or his frankly dangerous promoting of a particular “miracle drug” that was untested and unproven.
There’s an awful lot of information to digest here, but the film does an excellent job of laying it all out to reach the inescapable conclusion that many thousands of deaths could have been prevented if the administration had just listened to scientists.
Totally Under Control is available on BBC iPlayer until March 2021