THE STORY – Public health officials discuss the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
THE CAST – Kathleen Sebelius, Taison Bell, Rick Bright, Scott Becker, Francis Riedo, Thomas Frieden, Michael Shear, Eva Lee, Max Kennedy, Caroline Chen, Michael Bowen, James Lawler, Kim Jon Yong, Victoria Kim, Alex Greninger, Vladimir Zelenko & Beth Cameron
THE TEAM – Alex Gibney (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 123 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It goes without saying that the pandemic has had a massive impact on all of our lives. Not a single day passes where we aren’t constantly reminded of the absolute disruption to our way of life – not to mention the millions that have been infected and the staggering thousands who have lost their lives. It can be a daunting task to think about the early days of the crisis and reflect on the many mistakes that were made that led to this moment, particularly with an ever-evolving story that quickly changes in a fluid landscape of news. This is the task that “Totally Under Control” sets out to document, and it’s an absorbing portrait of a critical failure in governmental leadership.
Given the state of the world throughout the entire year, one can be forgiven for not remembering the precise details that led to the American response to the pandemic. This documentary traces those steps from the start of the year and shows a process in which the many safeguards were dismantled and actions from leaders ultimately failed to successfully mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Experts and whistleblowers, all interviewed in rooms surrounded with protective equipment, give testimonials as to how the virus began to spread in the United States and how exactly the government’s actions directly led to the exacerbation of this crisis.
Alex Gibney is a director who is already known for incendiary works on the state of current political affairs. He’s a well-known figure in the world of documentaries and his staggering output is impressive, if somewhat inconsistent. With the help of his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, there’s a chilling and meticulous journey outlined that encompasses the initial stages of the U.S. response to this ongoing pandemic. The information presented is thorough, yet never comes across as tedious or overwhelmingly grim. The scope establishes a context that frames both the failed domestic response alongside the more proactive approach other countries have taken, specifically South Korea. Documentaries are still a means of storytelling, and the construction of this one is often engaging, horrifying and infuriating at the same time.
Separate from the actual dismay that’s depicted, the film presents a wildly fascinating example of the practicality of filming during a pandemic. Its exploration into this process isn’t nearly as comprehensive but showcasing the complex setups of plastic sheets and remote camera deliveries give a fascinating look at how this production must operate. It only underscores the gravity of the current situation, and this revealing peek behind the curtain connects thematically with other footage shown of regular civilians in this fight, suffering and fighting not only against a deadly disease but a lethargic federal response as well. It’s yet another element the film employs to emphasize the utterly tragic situation we all find ourselves in.
As riveting as the film is at many points, one can’t help but consider how such a commentary on a developing crisis can’t escape the inevitability of being dated. Much of the story specifically targets the earlier months and the anemic process that played out, and that is successful at capturing a snapshot of intriguing information. However, there are times when fleeting references are made to current statistics, and it completely throws one into a current moment that will feel obsolete very soon. The picture the film paints can also be selective, as it has much to say about the contrast that the United States has with South Korea, but not much about how European countries were affected and contributed to the transmission on the American continent. It’s a deliberate choice to show a successful vs. failed response, but it’s an exploration that’s still missed and robs the film of more layered storytelling.
Any discussion concerning the pandemic runs the risk of feeling archaic the moment it’s initiated. Events are happening so quickly that even this film was completed mere days before the president’s own positive diagnosis of the virus. There are times when “Totally Under Control” can’t keep up with the times, and those are certainly the least effective moments. However, its main focus is on a detailed analysis of a particular failure in leadership and planning, and it’s that examination that makes the strongest impact. This will no doubt be one of many films that takes a stern look at the overreaching effects of this crisis, and for that, it can be easy to judge for this moment in time and this moment only. Perhaps that’s true, but what “Totally Under Control” says about this moment is so provocative that it still manages to be vital viewing.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A riveting takedown of the failed U.S. response to the pandemic, plotting out a meticulous timeline that’s engaging, tragic and rage-inducing. The information is thorough, yet never comes across as tedious. It offers an interesting window into the process of filming during these troubled times.
THE BAD – Some information dates the film considerably and detracts from the overall storytelling. Some international developments are omitted and a more layered portrait is lost.
THE OSCARS – None