Look around you. Does the Coronavirus seem “totally under control” to you? Didn’t think so. Well, that was the line coming from Donald Trump and his administration early on in 2020, as the virus spread like wildfire. Now, more than seven months into a full-fledged pandemic, COVID-19 has taken more than 200,000 American lives, while infecting over seven million people. Whether it makes you angry, depressed, sad, or all of the above, it’s a failing of government unlike any we’ve seen. The harrowing documentary Totally Under Control is an essential depiction of just how the Trump Administration dropped the ball, in the process killing the very citizens it swore to protect.
Playing almost like a documentary version of Contagion, Totally Under Control is designed to elicit a reaction. You may cry. You may rage. I know I did both. What the doc does so well is depict how this could have been prevented. COVID was coming. Everyone knew it. We as a nation could have done more to face it head-on. Had we done that, we wouldn’t still be stuck in neutral, pandemic-wise, and scores of people would still be alive. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not think about the countless folks who died alone in hospital beds, unable to see family, without an ability to be comforted in their final moments, victims of a virus that didn’t have to take them. As we’ve known since the spring, and as written about in the Wall Street Journal: “A brutal hallmark of the pandemic is the way it isolates its victims even in their final moments. Patients die alone in hospital rooms, cut off from their spouses, children, siblings and often their pastors or rabbis. The emotional end-of-life moments, if they happen at all, unfold over an electronic tablet or phone, with a stranger serving as an intermediary.” Again, it didn’t have to be this way, which is something Totally Under Control comes back to over and over again.
Depicting the incredibly inept response of the U.S. government to COVID, the doc begins with how the warning signs were ignored. While other countries prepared themselves for the inevitable, President Trump and his political appointees downplayed the virus, assuring the public that it was nothing to be worried about. Precautions weren’t taken, while politicians and their empty words were put on a higher mantle than that of the medical experts, all of whom were sounding the alarm bells back in January.
COVID-19’s ravaging of the United States dominates the back half of Totally Under Control. From late February until today, Coronavirus infects millions in the country, all while Trump and his cronies continue to ignore the advice of experts. The film features scores of public health officials, all of whom were fighting a losing battle with misinformation. While the virus was spreading its deadly infection, indifference and a choice of politics over safety only exacerbated matters.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney, as well as his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger utilize numerous experts to continually hammer home their point. A two hour plus flick featuring scientists and public health officials expressing their fury at what has gone down could prove unbearable, but everything is so well laid out that it’s quickly captivating. None of that is surprising under Gibney’s watchful eye, but it’s noteworthy all the same. The almost day by day approach makes it seem nearly as thought it’s a disaster movie, and frankly…it kind of is. The only difference is that the disaster is real, and still occurring daily in this country.
Totally Under Control was finished one day before Trump contracted COVID himself, but regardless, it’s impossible not to watch the documentary and have that ironic fact banging around in your head. This is a tough sit, but a must-see. Gibney and company make sure that you don’t have a calm moment, but they also lay out everything that’s happened regarding COVID in 2020 with ruthless efficiency, even if the running time is a bit over two hours.
Totally Under Control is nothing if not timely viewing. Neon is releasing this at the perfect time, coming shortly after Gibney and his partnering filmmakers finished the movie. The documentary should be required viewing before voting, though honestly, if you’re still on the fence, this film may go over your head. Regardless, do yourself a favor and see this doc, if only to remind yourself of how poorly this entire situation was handled, is being handled, and may continued to be handled if changes aren’t on the immediate horizon.