In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, some film-watchers made jokes, gradually darkening in tone, about how much real-world events resembled the subgenre of outbreak thrillers — specifically, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Now, the actual movie version of that joke has arrived, and it’s free to stream online through Nov. 4. Totally Under Control is a documentary from workhorse filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose many past projects include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Scientology doc Going Clear. Working with fellow directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Gibney has delivered a swiftly paced chronicle of history in the making, rich in both immediacy and uncertainty.
Totally Under Control isn’t fiction like Contagion, and isn’t one of those docs that aims to approximate the experience of a fiction film, using close character studies and a finely shaped narrative. But the movie does have a little in common with the Soderbergh of Contagion, in that it’s exacting and clear-eyed rather than a pulse-pounder. It also shares some common ground with the later-period Soderbergh of High Flying Bird and The Laundromat, in that it’s a work of advocacy, pointedly dropping in the final weeks before America’s 2020 presidential election, and ending with a tacit warning about avoiding future versions of the mistakes it describes.
At the same time, it isn’t Gibney’s style to produce a Michael Moore-like essay-doc on the state of the nation. While the movie opens with the vague suggestion that it will examine the pandemic as a culmination of 21st-century technocratic hubris — an unexpected test that the world, and America in particular, failed spectacularly — the filmmakers don’t really have time for expansive theorizing. Totally Under Control takes place over a clear timeline: It starts in January 2020, and ends a couple of weeks ago, appending a final on-screen note about President Trump contracting COVID-19 the day after the movie was finished.
Really, the scope is even narrower; much of the movie covers the dithering and indifference of the Trump administration between January and April 2020 when faced with the inevitability of the pandemic making its way across the United States. The narrative thrust is essentially an annotated timeline, exploring in great detail the testing screw-up that cost the country precious weeks back in February as a result of (among other problems) the CDC and FDA not communicating much with each other, and the shortage in protective gear that had the U.S. selling materials to China, only to buy them back at an inflated price. It all leads into the grand spring announcement that the U.S. will be re-opening as soon as possible,
These stories feature the expected (and, by lots of standards, journalistically restrained) takedowns of Trump, Jared Kushner, and other vessels for self-impressed incompetence, while also bringing in less-familiar names like Robert Ladlec (Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response) and Alex Azar (Secretary of Health and Human Services). One volunteer for Kushner’s wandering task force describes an administration so anti-government that working for them was really more like working outside the government entirely. The movie portrays an organization so satisfied with appearances that they seem absolutely flummoxed by the notion that anyone in government would actually try to do their assigned jobs.
Visually speaking, Totally Under Control isn’t a knockout. There are many, many close-ups of re-created emails, some fairly stock news clips, and plenty of familiar Trump press-conference blunders. It’s hard to avoid a grim recitation of the administration’s greatest hits (“anybody who wants a test can get a test”), though it’s valuable to see these moments in fuller context, where, if anything, they look even worse.
But the movie’s freshest footage comes from a series of simple interviews, which the filmmakers labored to conduct safely with “COVID cams” designed to keep a sanitized barrier between camera operator and subject, with questions piped in over the phone. Public-health experts make their points clearly and evenly, landing somewhere between disbelief, heartbreak, and anger. With them comes a certain clarity, even if the broad points have been made elsewhere.
The movie repeatedly draws a contrast with South Korea, where the virus hit around the same time as the U.S., but the government responded with decisive action. Even when a superspreader event occurs, courtesy of what’s described as a “doomsday Christian cult,” the containment effort outpaces any federal response in this country. It seems like Trump’s own Rose Garden super-spreader event happened too late into post-production to warrant a direct, snarky comparison — or maybe Gibney is too upright to make it.
It hangs over the moment anyway: Doomsday cults are everywhere, but other countries seem able to combat them, rather than placing them in charge. This observation, along with the others more directly addressed in Totally Under Control, isn’t new. But the filmmakers nonetheless believe there’s value in the documentation — and they’re right.