‘Totally Under Control’ Reveals With Damning Detail How the White House Fumbled the Covid-19 Response

The most important documentary of the year is about this very year we’re still living through. With the precision of a complex thriller, “Totally Under Control” tells the whole, infuriating saga of how Covid-19 brought the United States to its knees, exposing cracks in the system exasperated by the president. As a technical accomplishment alone it’s a noteworthy feat. Directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger have worked for the last five months interviewing key players and insiders who were there when the pandemic began in early 2020, witnessing how the apparatus of the world’s mightiest nation seemed to freeze before a medical crisis.

What these three filmmakers have made in such a quick burst of time is the first major chronicle to answer the question, what the hell has been going on this year? Its linear structure is worthy of a classic viral thriller like Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain.” “Totally Under Control” opens at the start of the year, when it became apparent that a viral outbreak that began in late 2019 in China was sprouting into something quite serious. “Covid Cams” were sent to interview subjects so they could speak to the filmmakers remotely. What emerges is a disturbing example of ignored forewarnings. Subjects like Rick Bright, former director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARD) share about receiving urgent accounts and data out of China when Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan, gestating out of its wet markets. U.S. intelligence even noticed the Chinese government mobilizing to fast-track the construction of new hospitals. South Korea, the main country used as a comparison point, instantly began to mobilize as well once it was obvious the virus was spreading. Yet in the Trump White House the focus was on reelection, and on touting economic growth as Trump’s main theme. As Covid-19 began its now infamous trajectory across the globe, the U.S. system, obsessed with privatization policies and packed with political tools installed based purely on loyalty, American society was virtually naked in facing the coming storm.

There might be a temptation to accuse Gibney and his fellow directors of releasing “Totally Under Control” as an election rallying cry. Already some articles have drawn up comparisons to past documentaries like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but there is nothing sensationalist in its tone. The editing is straight-forward, relying on the interviews, news clips, emails and vital digital animations explaining how an airborne virus spreads. By forgoing any blatant sloganeering, the documentary feels like a serious chronicle, one that future generations will see as a chart of the events. Gibney and the team’s approach also lack speculation. As in Gibney’s best documentaries like “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” or the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side,” the facts and documents speak for themselves. 

What is most astounding about what “Totally Under Control” explains is the odd combination of Trumpian hubris with our diehard capitalist ethos. As officials like Bright urged the White House and CDC to take action, various factors swirled like a toxic alignment. Trump’s Secretary of Health, Alex Azar, is depicted as completely devoted to the idea that markets will work on their own, then scrambling to find some form of government mobilization once the pandemic struck the U.S. full force. Those famous N95 masks that were in short supply had been sold to China early in their crisis for a hefty price. Then Jared Kushner rushed to form a pitiful team of volunteers to buy masks back from the Chinese. In a jaw-dropping section, the documentary details how states were forced to bid against each other for essential medical supplies. In one clip, Trump shrugs like a total fat cat while a governor pleads over not being able to bid against giants like California.  Even the CDC itself had been stacked by officials like Vice President Mike Pence with religious fellow travelers like Robert R. Redfield, who during the AIDS epidemic had pushed for Christian-based abstinence education. The now famous Dr. Anthony Fauci was the only actual medical expert on Trump’s much-touted Coronavirus Task Force, everyone else was a business suit. Historians will look aghast at how this is the way the world superpower functioned amid a serious public health cataclysm. 

One can instantly sense the lingering disbelief in the subjects sitting in front of the camera, like New York Times correspondent Michael D. Shear, who constantly raises his hands as if to shake us into awareness. Operations researcher and keen mathematician Dr. Eva Lee easily formed models early in the pandemic to assess how wide it would spread. But no one would listen. As if the Fates had timed it all, Covid-19 struck just as the Trump presidency slashed and cut vital resources. John Bolton as National Security Advisor had shut down the Global Health Security and Biodefense team established under the previous Obama administration. A picture emerges of the Trump circle so devoted to sweeping away the old Obama structure and cementing their own radical style that what ended up happening was the demolition of key defenses. Even the first Covid testing kits turned out to be duds, with an unnecessary component added that rendered them faulty. 

The documentary’s key comparison with the U.S. is South Korea, where a rapid effort into testing, contact tracing and the compilation of medical supplies saved the country from economic downfall. A country of 51 million had 500 deaths, compared to the U.S. toll now standing at over 219,000 deaths. All the famous clips of Trump are here, at first dismissing the virus as a hoax, then assuring the populace it would disappear like magic with the summer. But it is all given a wider, unnerving context with the information the documentary surrounds such moments with. Like a mad emperor, Trump is depicted as firing those who disagree, such as Rick Bright and others, especially when they would speak out in public, thus humiliating the bully. 

Then there is the human toll as doctors also share on camera about Covid-19’s rapid spread among Latinx and Black communities, ravaging essential workers. Unpleasant but essential to admit, those who run the country were more concerned with desperately keeping the economy afloat than saving lives. But how does one negotiate with a virus? Eventually the shutdowns came and the economy is where it is now. Another side effect explored in “Totally Under Control” is the toll it has taken on the American psyche, as angry and confused citizens brawl in public over the new political divisions centered on simple tasks like wearing a mask. It has always been speculated that a common threat against humanity could unite our species, but with leaders like Trump in charge that seems like a hard sell.

“Totally Under Control” is essential viewing, first because of its urgency and second because it is simply great journalism. It will surely spark partisan passions. But what cannot be denied is that the world has changed as a result of the ongoing pandemic, and the evidence presented here of why it spiraled into such a catastrophe is damning to say the least. The virus was not caused by humans, but the fallout is all our doing.

Totally Under Control” releases Oct. 13 on VOD and begins streaming Oct. 20 on Hulu.