Totally Under Control examines America’s response to Covid-19. Featuring an impressive array of experts, directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger present a timeline of missed opportunities, unforced errors and lies.
We are never in any doubt about who the film blames for the mishandling of the virus - the clue is in the documentary's ironic title. Totally Under Control argues that President Donald Trump and his administration were more focused on playing politics than protecting lives.
There is a real sense of urgency here - inspired, of course, by the then looming 2020 US presidential election. This is a master class in attention grabbing timeliness - from the documentary's stark assessment of the US government’s performance to the new processes developed in order to film safely.
However, post election, Totally Under Control loses none of its power. This compelling and disturbing documentary will be painfully relevant long after Trump leaves the White House. Meanwhile, it also strikes a bleak chord for many of those living outside the US.
Time pressures and the enormity of the storytelling task at hand means that this is not a complete story of America’s pandemic response. Indeed, Trump announced his own positive test result on the eve of the film’s release (noted by the film in a concluding title card).
As a result, Totally Under Control feels like the first part in what could easily become a trilogy of documentaries about the coronavirus (a wave of Covid-19 films feels inevitable). Based on the quality of this entry, I would welcome such a series.
According to Totally Under Control, America’s day of reckoning came on 20th January 2020. This was the day that the US recorded its “first” case of Covid-19. On the same day, South Korea also announced its first case.
Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger examine the coronavirus timelines of the two countries. Nine months after that day of reckoning, the virus had claimed the lives of over 200,000 Americans and caused devastating economic damage. Meanwhile, South Korea had no significant lockdowns and, in an urbanized population of 51 million, only 344 lives were lost.
These shocking statistics prompt the directors to ask some tough questions while comparing the pandemic response of the two countries. How quickly did they act? When did they begin their trace and test programmes? What did the US and South Korea do differently and why?
One of the key differences highlighted in Totally Under Control is the decision by South Korea’s politicians to stay out of the country’s pandemic response. In the US, however, politics hampered the country’s reaction to Covid-19. For example, the Trump administration failed to ensure the timely development of testing kits, displayed a dangerous disdain for science and sought to politicise health and safety.
As resigned as we are to “fake news”, it is still shocking to watch the president of the United States lying, calling the pandemic a hoax engineered by the Democrats and making the wearing of masks a divisive political issue. The footage of Trump in the film is designed to provoke outrage and disgust - and it more than achieves this goal.
The Lost Month
Totally Under Control is far from partisan propaganda, however. Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger make sure to explore the mistakes made in the handling of other virus outbreaks - from the influenza A virus subtype H1N1 to Ebola.
Dr Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 2009-2017, reminds us that the Obama administration mishandled the distribution of the H1N1 vaccine. It was also criticised for being too slow in its reaction to Ebola.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course. However, the documentary argues that the critical difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration is that President Obama was open with the press and the public, and he believed that scientists should direct the country’s response.
By ignoring and undermining the scientific community, a crucial month was wasted. The significance of this lost month is made clear thanks to testimony from Totally Under Control’s impressive line-up of experts. One of the film’s most powerful “talking heads” is Dr Eva Lee, research director at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I am obsessed with predicting things,” Dr Lee reveals. This, she explains, is all part of her mathematics training. Famous for using modelling to predict the spread of disease, she foresaw America’s march towards a pandemic and tried to raise the alarm. However, her warnings were ignored by those in power - along with the alarm calls of many other scientists, mathematicians and infectious disease experts.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration continued to insist that everything was under control. In March, President Trump claimed that everybody who wanted a test could get a test - something everyone involved in testing knew to be a lie. His administration urged Americans to take cruise holidays and book trips to destinations such as Disney.
However, just one month later, New York was gripped by a Covid contagion. By the end of April 2020, 3,000 New Yorkers had died from the virus - surpassing the death toll of 9/11. Even in the midst of such overwhelming tragedy, Trump resisted lockdown plans. He knew all too well that a damaged economy would equal a damaged reelection campaign.
In addition to examining America’s initial response and testing programme, Totally Under Control investigates the country’s devastating shortage of medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Covid-19 decimated the global supply chain. Masks and PPE were in particularly short supply. In the documentary, Micheal Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige America, explains that he had been raising concerns about this issue for years. However, his fears were ignored. As a result, America did not have enough masks to meet the desperate demand.
President Trump’s response? To lie about the effectiveness of masks and, once again, politicise their use. It is sickening to watch. Meanwhile, Totally Under Control also examines the Trump administration’s decision to pit one state against another in what became a fight for medical equipment and PPE.
If the medical community was not suffering enough, Trump then began to tout the unproven benefits of hydroxychloroquine. The documentary examines the reason for his belief in this anti-malaria drug. It would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so utterly nightmarish.
What can you do when your government is not listening to science? Well, if you are Dr Rick Bright, director of the US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (2016-2020), you become a whistleblower. Dr Bright recalls his experience of speaking out against the US government’s handling of the virus. Trump, a president who prized loyalty over expertise, then launched a vitriolic personal attack against the immunologist, who was removed from his post.
The evidence presented by Totally Under Control paints a truly devastating picture. Hindsight may be 20/20 but it is clear that unacceptable mistakes were made, horrendous decisions were taken - and many, many lives were lost as a result.