Alex Gibney is a very good documentarian who made his name with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Gibney’s bread and butter is making documentaries about political or political-adjacent figures doing dirty deeds in the back room (see also: Casino Jack and the United States of Money), but he also likes to tell the stories of great Americans who are undone through hubris (The Armstrong Lie, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley). In Totally Under Control, all of Gibney’s chief interests are brought to bear: politics, dirty backroom deals, great Americans brought down by hubris. Some might argue using the word “great” in terms of Donald Trump, but I think any US president hamstrung through sheer incompetence is of note, whether one approves of them personally or not. And in Totally Under Control, Gibney, along with directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, lays out the step-by-step bungling of the US response to the coronavirus epidemic.
If you’ve been following the news this year, the information in Totally Under Control isn’t necessarily new. But having it all laid out together, along with commentary from the people who were really there as these events unfolded, makes crystal clear how badly the United States f-cked up its coronavirus response and how utterly unnecessary all this death and suffering has been. At this point, people who are committed to supporting Trump are probably not going to have their minds changed, but this isn’t really about changing minds. It’s about mapping a total breakdown in governance and abdication of political responsibility. It’s a roadmap for future administrations of what not to do in a crisis. It also contextualizes some early moments in the pandemic that have ongoing repercussions, such as a decision to change CDC guidelines regarding mask-wearing rather than deal with the national stockpile and supply chain of emergency equipment.
This is an absolutely enraging documentary, with testimony from many administration officials—all of whom have been fired by now for, basically, doing their jobs—and doctors and volunteers on the ground. One of the more infuriating reveals is about Jared Kushner’s PPE task force, in which volunteers, some of whom overcame political differences to help, were left twisting in the wind while watching the government for which they were volunteering bidding against states trying to acquire PPE. The whole thing is completely infuriating, and you WILL be incandescent with rage more than once, but that is the whole point. We SHOULD be furious because the mess the US is in now was completely avoidable. Totally Under Control contrasts the US’s response with South Korea’s response to really drive home the point. Both countries confirmed their first COVID cases on January 20, but while the US continues to flounder through various stages of shutdown and a death toll over 200,000, South Korea is back to life as usual—albeit with masks and hand sanitizer everywhere—and less than 500 deaths.
Gibney, Harutyunyan, and Hillinger have crafted a precise timeline for the US’s complete breakdown in pandemic response, and in so doing they leave one of the most damning records of presidential incompetence ever. This isn’t just an exercise in raising your blood pressure—although it will—it’s also about documenting the failure while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Totally Under Control is basically an elaborate witness statement from those on the front lines of the pandemic response. It’s laid out in a way to maximize the audience’s emotional reaction, but it also has the facts and figures to justify pushing those buttons. Yes, Totally Under Control will upset you, but it’s still worth studying the whys and wherefores of America’s bungled response. Perhaps, in future, this can be a reminder to not elect to government those who loathe the very idea of governance.