Totally Under Control

Totally Under Control

2020, NR, 123 min. Directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 9, 2020

"This is their new hoax."

Never forget these words. They were the infectious emission from President Donald Trump when he deliberately chose to politicize a virus. A virus! That's like politicizing air or water, which the GOP has already done, throwing out accepted logic and the idea of a consensus reality. And, as the GOP has done for years, he skated on that delusional approach until it came around to him.

It takes a village to burn itself to the ground, and no one is better at contextualizing such huge events, and structuring the information into a clear and transparent narrative, than documentarian Alex Gibney (The Armstrong Lie, Zero Days). His latest documentary, co-directed with his long-time producer Ophelia Harutyunyan and How to Fix an Election director Hillinger, is an explosive, jaw-dropping, and enraging examination of the Trump administration's woeful mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. Its core, depressing, and unavoidable question is simple: How did one of the most advanced and wealthiest countries on the planet so completely fail in its response?

But even the most startlingly inept and ill-qualified president can't sabotage and woefully mishandle a nation's response to a catastrophe. Totally Under Control! puts the focus on glad-handing buffoons like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Ambassador Deborah Birx, and Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, who had no clue how to respond other than mutter "the free market," all enabled by the deliberate inaction of supposed pandemic response czar Vice President Mike Pence, all the way to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flat-out lying about the existence of an Obama/Biden administration pandemic response document.

On the other side, there's no single, valiant whistleblower. Instead, the film lets a wide array of informed voices – front line medics, policy experts, White House correspondents – who endangered their careers to help put all the pieces that are lying in plain sight together. Interviewed with a COVID-resistant evolution of Errol Morris' Interrotron, whereby the subject talks directly and intimately to the camera, Totally Under Control feels less like a documentary and more like grand jury testimony. Constructed in secrecy over months, and incredibly timely (wrapping with Trump's own positive diagnosis just last week), it's a genuine October Surprise.

Gibney et al lay out this impossibly huge story as a day-by-day narrative, showing how the spread in the U.S. wasn't about a failed system. It was about a system working exactly how it was supposed to, because every decision the Trump team took was nothing to do with stopping the disease. It's always been about Trump's reelection.

Yes, that's nothing new, and there's nothing here that's breaking news. However, what's important about Totally Under Control! is that it takes the firehose of information that's been pummeling us in the face, day in, day out, since the potential for disaster became clear in February. It's been easy to forget about the "lost month" of testing, or how the administration kept the cruise ship Diamond Princess off the coast so they could keep the infection numbers off the books, or the N95 production shortage, but it was impossible to see how these events were interconnected, or even keep them in mind as the latest cataclysm hit.

Not that the film places all the blame on the Trump administration. Instead, as always, it's the system that failed, and had been failing for years, with Gibney's old nemesis of the untrammeled free market as the long-term villain. Yet Team Trump is clearly the worst cabal in the worst place at the worst time. The emerging argument – that the administration put the market first and wasn't afraid of a little price gouging and profiteering along the way – is indefatigably presented.

Totally Under Control will be released on demand on Oct. 13, and on Hulu Oct. 20.

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Totally Under Control, Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger

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