[Review] ‘TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL’ traces how our current administration mishandled the pandemic


Travis Leamons // Film Critic


Not Rated, 123 minutes
Director: Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger

How soon is too soon for a movie about COVID-19? Not soon enough, if you’re Alex Gibney.

The famous documentarian behind ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM – a film which struck a political bullseye during an election year – is at it again. His latest, TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL, is an on-point doc about ineptitude and malfeasance of America’s government response to the Coronavirus.

Working with co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger – and developing a device simply called the “Covid Cam” to record interview subjects as safe as possible – Gibney offers a chronological account of how the pandemic evolved. The documentary is so current that it begins with the first reported case in America from early January to when President Donald Trump received his positive test for the virus.

As someone who works in the civil sector, watching a city leader deliver updates at briefings on how the Coronavirus has progressed throughout the year, I have seen how precautionary measures and science are in the best interests of a collective whole. This virus has caused a lot of on-the-fly changes in how we work, learn, and interact. Sporting leagues suspended operations and then shortened schedules to salvage the remainder of a regular season and playoffs. Hollywood shuffled its release dates, with most films being postponed to 2021. (Though, quite a few went the premium VOD route or were snatched up by streaming providers like Netflix, Hulu, and Apple+.)

TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL isn’t about the big industries affected by the deadly virus or the thousands of small businesses that were forced to close its doors for good as city-enacted quarantine measures made net income unsustainable. No, the documentary is about the information at our disposal then, how that information has changed, and how our current situation seems to be getting worse because our country’s Executive Branch has handled the virus.

Even the film’s title is a direct reflection of how things currently aren’t. It’s a phrase that President Trump has used in interviews in describing how his administration has handled COVID-19. The whole thing is frustrating, from the top on down.

The chronological timeline of events is counterbalanced with how South Korea responded to cases and how it is making progress while America continues to lag. Victoria Kim, the Seoul correspondent for The L.A. Times, and Caroline Chen, who covers health care for ProPublica and is based out of Hong Kong, offer remarks to elucidate and inform.

Those that already get their news from either a “fair and balanced” network or “fake news” outlet won’t gain anything revelatory with the information shared. There’s no smoking gun or whistle-blowing informant from Trump’s administration. Nor do we get any commentary from persons in Congress, which is a shame considering how the pandemic has become politicized.

Gibney and his creative team do a great job of expanding upon what we know already by providing context in how the pandemic was bungled at different stages. From the CDC producing an inferior testing agent to the federal government outbidding state governments eBay-style in obtaining PPEs and health care provisions at a premium price, the blame game is shared by multiple parties. Though nobody is as culpable as the Trump administration, it would appear. The sheer apathy is staggering as cases continue to rise around the nation, taking a deadly toll on persons of color and those with pre-existing conditions.

Of the participants Gibney assembled for TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL, we have individuals who refused to go along with the status quo and told the truth. People like former BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) director Rick Bright and former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden explain the medical protocols in a simplified manner without a lot of jargon. We learn of a “pandemic playbook” that President Obama’s administration created with the steps to take in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. Mike Bowen, the owner of Prestige Ameritech, speaks of the N95 mask shortage and how his American plant could have manufactured millions of masks, but the federal government showed little interest.

Once certain facts are revealed, they should have been accompanied by a Ryan Reynolds facepalm GIF. That sense of exasperation happens multiple times. Considering how bad 2020 has been – with every month being a hold-my-beer moment in trying to trump the previous one – TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL serves as a nice CliffsNotes guide in studying the pandemic. While a conclusion has yet to be formed, this documentary, at the very least, acknowledges how out-of-touch and out-of-control our nation truly is.

Grade: B+

TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL is now available to stream on Hulu, and on DocPlay now Free for 30 Days.

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