And now, he brings us “Totally Under Control,” an incisive, lucid and infuriating critique of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that Gibney co-directed with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. In the old days of film stock and editing room, we’d say that this timely narrative has arrived “dripping wet.” Indeed, this is such an up-to-the-minute account that the filmmakers were able to add a dismally ironic postscript that, just a day after completing the movie, President Trump himself would be diagnosed with covid-19.
Obeying the meticulous, metronomic rhythms of a classic procedural, “Totally Under Control” takes viewers back to what seems like another age, when a mysterious flu in Wuhan, China, was ravaging that community. Starting with the first known case in Washington state, the pandemic arrives on U.S. shores, and the misjudgments, missed opportunities and scrambled responses begin. Tests are hurriedly prepared but prove faulty, and an easy fix is inexplicably overlooked; the federal government pits states against each other in an obscene bidding war for badly-needed supplies; American citizens are given confusing and contradictory messages about the severity of the disease and the most appropriate ways to fight it; tough lessons learned by the previous administration, which battled its own outbreaks, are abandoned in favor of an ad hoc, often incoherent, reinvention of myriad wheels.
Meanwhile, the fatalities pile up. In addition to creating a concise, tonally understated compendium of damning facts and figures, “Totally Under Control” provides a useful comparison with South Korea, which the filmmakers present in side-by-side scenes: In the United States, people come to blows over whether to wear masks while in Seoul, a rapid-response testing and tracing program keeps outbreaks to a minimum and a complete economic shutdown at bay.
To anyone who has followed the news of the pandemic, “Totally Under Control” doesn’t break much news — although one of its most piquant moments features a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy providing a firsthand description of the shambolic, all-volunteer supply-chain effort overseen by Jared Kushner to procure personal protection equipment. Rick Bright, who recently resigned his post as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, is particularly convincing as the kind of apolitical technocrat that the Trump administration seems singularly threatened by. Taison Bell, a physician at the University of Virginia, delivers moving testimony, not just regarding the devastating effects of covid-19, but its disproportionate effect on communities of color.
Gibney and his team were intent on releasing “Totally Under Control” before the election, although it’s difficult to discern whether it will tip any scales (although it will be hard for Forever Trumpers to ignore mask manufacturer Michael Bowen, whose pleas to the president for whom he voted to ramp up production go unheeded). Matters of objective science and empirical observation have now become so mired in partisanship, authoritarian narrative and conspiracy blather that even a film this judicious and straightforwardly informative feels doomed to reach no further than its own self-selected constituency. Should open-minded viewers decide to watch “Totally Under Control,” they’re likely to feel snapped awake, as if from a long, horrifying national trance. Let’s hope they keep awake, and stay angry.
Unrated. Available at afisilver.afi.com. Contains some disturbing images. 123 minutes.