Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger, and Ophelia Harutyunyan’s new Covid-19 documentary, Totally Under Control, began production in April in secret, while the three directors worked remotely from Maine and New York. (The documentary is now streaming online.) Until recently, the movie’s final cut was almost completely to-the-minute regarding the pandemic’s progress, or at least as much as could be expected from a project being made practically live, in the moment. Its currentness is meant to imply a level of journalistic credibility and thoroughness, a point made clear early on when the movie asserts that 200,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus so far — news as of only late last month.
Biology is inconvenient, however, and changes in narrative minutiae can be swift. Only a day after the film’s completion, President Donald Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. It’s crass to call this a plot twist (and shouldn’t plot twists come as a total surprise?), but if you’re in the business of Gibney-style procedural breakdowns that play like linear précis of very hot, very recent news, there really is no other word. The news was obviously relevant enough to the arc of this movie that, as the directorial trio recently told the Los Angeles Times, it demanded some thinking on their end as to how, or even whether, to update it. They did: a not-unironic closing title announcing the president’s diagnosis now closes the movie.
But even that narrative quickly transformed, as more people from the White House and among Republican ranks announced that they too had tested positive, and word got out about the whereabouts of everyone involved, the cavalier lack of precautions taken in the White House proper, and on and on. The risk of trying to tell a story that’s still live and fuming, mutating as the virus itself apparently mutates — and as messaging from the CDC, the White House, and every other public authority whose choices impact our lives, has mutated and shifted over the course of the pandemic.
Totally Under Control — the title itself is ripped straight from Trump’s mouth and accordingly meant to have bite — is clearly a film made with all of this in mind. The slipperiness of the White House’s attitude toward the pandemic, the errors made by state politicians and, unfortunately, even health authorities (such as the CDC’s contaminated test kits), the shifting understandings of the virus by the embattled scientific community: All of this has been in flux. All of this has only contributed to an ongoing state of instability.
Yet instability and utter unrest aren’t what characterize the documentary, which in trademark Gibney style is neatly organized and full of authoritative voices, a combination of play-by-play and well-sourced editorializing. It’s about two hours long and moves through its story by marking time, down to the date: January 20, the day that the first patients in both America and South Korea tested positive, gets labelled a “day of reckoning.” Everything goes downhill from here.
And per the movie, it all proceeds precisely according to that national split, with the vastly different bureaucratic responses of American and South Korean authorities getting narrated alongside each other for comparison’s sake. One nation leaned on its scientists, deployed early, frequent testing, and found ways to contain the spread of the pandemic while studying and monitoring it closely. The other nation was America. One country took hard-won lessons from the recent MERS pandemic and reformed its approach to future pandemics; the other, with the Obama-era Ebola outbreak and subsequently criticized response in its rear view, took precautions against a future pandemic … only for that playbook to be thrown out of the window with the next administration. Both had a chance for course correction. One — not America — took that chance.
Totally Under Control relies on news footage, interviews with journalists, scientists, and medical authorities, and much of the rest of the by-now-familiar imagery of the pandemic (videos of anti-maskers and New York’s empty streets, clips from Trump rallies and press engagements featuring the likes of Dr. Fauci) to lay out what went wrong in the USA’s pandemic response. Its main thrust is that it didn’t have to be this way. The arc of the our country’s battle with the pandemic is narrated thusly: scientists at the CDC and beyond were the canaries in the coal mine, people ringing the alarm early and often. They were also making pronouncements which, for as unimaginable as they seemed in February or even the shutdown-heavy month of March, have more or less played out as expected, even as the virus itself and its effect on the infected still proved unpredictable.
An essential example of this is the February alarm sounded by Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC. By this time, models had already suggested that there were thousands of cases in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York in February. In a press briefing on February 25, Messonnier predicted, very early on, the measures that have now become everyday life: The community spread would affect the US, schools that have to go virtual, mass gatherings would be cancelled, our everyday lives would be disrupted, and so on. Such panic-inducing assessments far out of line with what the public, at that point, had been told so far. Remember when this all seemed impossible? (I don’t either. It’s been so long.) At any rate, its now obvious that her statements were not the message the White House wanted to get out into the world. Messonnier paid accordingly, being pushed to the background and no longer being considered the face of the CDC. It would be the beginning of what would become a whittling-down of scientists giving the first word on the pandemic. The damage was done, however: among other things, the stock market tanked. And this — not the death toll, not our lives, but “the economy” in the abstract — would, the documentary argues, prove crucial to Trump’s response.
There’s no reason to obscure the fact that Totally Under Control has the election on its mind. Certainly the picture it paints doesn’t obscure this. The care taken to detail America’s failure to curb the mounting infections, deaths, and job losses and ripped-bare inequities at the heart of this ongoing disaster is haunted by the specter of Trump’s potential second term. Even as the doc takes care to detail errors of the Obama era, too — the mishandling of H1N1 vaccines, and so on — the fear at the core of this work is that we will only continue to go downhill from here. The cold calculation of Trump’s response proves genuinely chilling. The argument is that the sitting president’s main ticket to reelection — if we ignore the red-hot poker that the president has been jabbing at the ass of our country’s broader social ills since Obama’s presidency — is the strength of the economy. Thus the movie issues frequent, pointed reminders of how much our lives, in this moment, would seem to depend on the economy’s appearance of good health. The better it looks, the less responsibly Trump acts, resulting in the worse for the rest of us. His claim early on was that the Democrats “politicized” the virus, and that it was all a hoax in line with the Russia scandal, the sexual assault allegations, and every other go-nowhere attempt to call his power into question.
The film ends with a grim promise: There will be more pandemics. There will be more disasters akin to the West Coast wildfires and other climate disasters. There will be more crises for which the government is, from the looks of things, willfully unprepared. But why should that be? And — just as urgently — what about the rest of us? For its appreciable rundown of the pandemic to date, the film hits a hard limit when it comes to really sussing out the undercurrents, the things which, though related to Trump, hardly begin and will certainly not end there should he be voted out. The film keeps its nose so tight to the ground of its procedural story that it takes for granted the things that scientists aren’t necessarily in a position to tell us about ourselves.
You wouldn’t know from this project, for example, that blind faith in the free market and a distrust of scientific authority were American problems, and not just problems of Trump’s administration. The sense of how citizens take the bone of misinformation and run with it is minimized; so is the role we play as the superspreaders — and victims — of the distrust sewn up top. But this, too, is the story, one that feels both completely germane to the outcomes outlined here and also, somehow, neatly extricable from this story as the filmmakers want to tell it.
Totally Under Control is very much in control: It makes the whole of this crisis feel explicable. That proves frustrating. With the tragedy of the pandemic still ongoing, and thus still fresh, it also proves gratingly impersonal. The movie’s anger is subdued in favor of a passion for fact, clarification, and linear pathways of blame — weapons against which Trump remains impervious, it seems, for reasons that are also germane to this story. That isn’t to say that we’ll learn nothing from this documentary, nor that it has no value. But its instincts feel outdated in the Trump era. It’s a fine placeholder for a real reckoning, a nicely-plated appetizer, a studious demonstration of how to read, collate, and repackage the news. Now all we need is to tell the actual story, which is to say, the human one.