The COVID-19 Documentary All Americans Need to See

Doctors in a still from "Totally Under Control"
This film feels shocking to watch in retrospect for its crisp frankness.Neon

Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic, it may seem senseless to make a two-hour film that looks back on how the coronavirus ran rampant in the U.S. And yet, Totally Under Control—from the Oscar-winning writer-director Alex Gibney and his co-directors, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger—not only documents the chaos of 2020 with clear-eyed precision, but also successfully argues for its own existence.

Filmed in secret over five months, Totally Under Control (streaming on Hulu) uses news footage and interviews with experts and government whistleblowers to show how the administration missed each opportunity to either stop the virus from arriving in the U.S. or prevent its spread. The filmmakers present these events in rapid, blow-by-blow succession, lending the doc an urgency that contrasts with the languid federal response to the pandemic. The result is a film that—unlike 76 Days, the moving and intimate documentary on the lockdown in Wuhan, China, made without talking heads—feels shocking to watch in retrospect for its crisp frankness. Viewers may have grown numb to the constant churn of distressing news and learned to stomach the administration’s failure to contain the virus. But Totally Under Control refuses to look away, and being reminded of how many warnings went unheeded is unnerving.

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I forgot, for instance, that in February and March, cruise ships that couldn’t dock had been petri dishes that carried infected Americans while the administration dismissed the virus’s threat. I forgot that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once discouraged the general public from wearing masks, because health-care workers needed the limited supply. I also forgot that Nancy Messonnier, of the CDC, warned at the end of February that the virus would spread in the U.S., and days later, she stopped appearing in the White House’s briefings.

If Totally Under Control simply presented all of these facts as events on a timeline, it would have come off as a brutal but rote history lesson. Instead, Gibney and his co-directors make the scope of America’s failures clear by comparing America’s response with that of South Korea. The two first-world countries found their first cases on the same day in January, but only one managed to avoid shutdowns and an economic free fall. In a rather wistful interview, the South Korean doctor Kim Jin Yong speaks candidly about how much he admired America and the CDC. He points out that 90 percent of the medical textbooks in South Korea are American, and that America has paved the way for medical advances, including inventing the N95 face mask in the 1990s. So watching America flounder has been, he says bluntly, “so sad.”

Gibney and his collaborators don’t interview some of the major players of the pandemic, such as Anthony Fauci, but the ones they do—mostly whistleblowers, government officials, and health-care experts such as Yong, who sat down for the camera behind sheets of plastic—exude a palpable exhaustion and wariness. Some, such as Max Kennedy Jr., one of the volunteers on Jared Kushner’s slapdash team tasked with procuring ventilators and personal protective equipment, speak cathartically about the lack of leadership. Others sound and appear drained: Scott Becker, the CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, chokes up while talking about his anxiety during the month when labs around the country couldn’t receive reliable COVID-testing kits.

Totally Under Control refuses to offer the viewer a soothing or satisfying conclusion, and instead demands action. (Neon)

But ultimately, health-care workers offer the strongest testimonies, perspectives the filmmakers juxtapose with the administration’s rosy updates. After an audio clip plays of the president declaring that the U.S. “wasn’t built to be shut down,” Taison Bell, the ICU director of the University of Virginia Medical Center, describes feeling helpless in the face of the disease. Francis Riedo, the medical director of Infectious Disease at EvergreenHealth in Seattle, talks of having one of his patients become the first American pandemic casualty, in a sound bite that plays after the president is shown celebrating zero COVID-related deaths in the U.S.

There are many moments like these. Totally Under Control—which takes its name from Trump’s own words—weaves in dozens of clips of the president’s constant downplaying of the virus. It couples his unfounded optimism with montages of people shouting at the essential workers who ask them to put on masks, and his boasts of American exceptionalism with footage of New York City’s weeks as the pandemic’s epicenter. It’s an ingenious move: The filmmakers condemn Trump’s leadership with his own statements, creating a call-and-response between the devastating reality and his wishful thinking. Gibney and his collaborators maintain that they don’t see the film as political, but instructive; they pushed to release the documentary before the presidential election in order to remind the public of the current administration's ineptitude.

Totally Under Control is unlikely to change minds; with a title and art that mocks the president, plus footage criticizing anti-maskers, there’s little chance that those who have refused to acknowledge the science of the pandemic will be interested in watching the film in the first place. Then again, it may seem illogical for anyone to press play on a documentary that looks back on the past 10 months and revisits how harrowing they’ve been. Even after the election, who would want to rewatch the worst moments of the worst year in recent history when all of it is still happening and the news is constantly mutating? What’s the point of having Americans revisit their trauma?

The filmmakers grapple with these questions when the timeline catches up to the present. Gibney’s previous documentaries—Going Clear, The Inventor—have offered neat takeaways about their subjects in their final minutes: Scientology is a harmful yet powerful entity; the downfall of Theranos’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes, embodies the dangers of Silicon Valley’s hubris. When it comes to what the administration’s coronavirus-response failures mean, however, Gibney can give only an unsettling, rather abrupt ending. “Our ability to reckon with the future will depend on how much we learn from our recent past,” he narrates. “Will we be ready to fix what’s already broken?”

But that’s what Totally Under Control does best—it refuses to offer the viewer a soothing or satisfying conclusion, and instead demands action. It denounces the president, but it also focuses on the responsibility of the American public to remain vigilant in preventing the spread of the virus, to fight the news-induced numbness, and to challenge those in power whose false promises can undermine the true reality of a crisis.

In the final seconds of the film, a title card reveals that the president was diagnosed with COVID-19 the day after the filmmakers finished editing. Now, in mid-October, even that fact feels like old news—the president certainly thinks it is. Yet as painful as examining the past in all its ugliness may be, it’s a necessary task. As Totally Under Control makes plain, there’s no clear ending in sight for Americans. But there won’t be an ending at all if lessons aren’t learned.