Review: Trump said COVID-19 was ‘Totally Under Control.’ A new documentary unpacks why it wasn’t
The last thing we see in “Totally Under Control” is a title card noting that President Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus. This will of course not come as news, let alone a spoiler, to anyone. In the whiplash-inducing days since that diagnosis, the public and the media have struggled to keep up with every jaw-dropping new development — a stint at Walter Reed, an imbecilic joyride, a dramatic return-home video that should have been titled “Triumph of the Ill” — even as an extraordinary outbreak has surged through the White House and the upper echelons of Republican leadership.
And so it is hardly the fault of this breathless, incisive and thoroughly infuriating movie that it already feels a touch out of date. How could it not? Even Alex Gibney, nonfiction cinema’s most prolific issue chaser, could hardly be expected to keep up with the dizzying downward spiral of a nation in the grip of an unshakable illness. And that illness, with apologies to Susan Sontag, is not the coronavirus so much as Trumpism itself. With calm, excoriating precision, the movie argues that the administration’s calamitous non-response ensured that a formidable viral threat would become a debilitating one, marked by a devastating economic collapse and the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans and counting.
Playing this week at select drive-in venues before it hits video on demand Oct. 13 and Hulu on Oct. 20, “Totally Under Control” is both a slow-motion tragedy and a sickening rush; it compresses roughly nine months of steadily mounting tension and chaotic freefall into two hours. That’s a pretty concentrated dose of outrage, and maybe a redundant one for anyone who’s been following the news. But even with the occasional repetitions and oversights that come with ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling, there is something bracing about seeing the bigger picture laid out as clearly and forcefully as it is here. Gibney, who directed the film with Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, has a bloodhound’s nose for corruption and failure, as well as a knack for streamlining news reports, data points and interviews into a coherent blow-by-blow narrative. Not since “Going Clear,” his 2015 indictment of the Church of Scientology, has he been so grippingly in his element.
The trailer for Alex Gibney’s “Totally Under Control,” which slams Trump’s COVID-19 response, debuted shortly after the president said he has the virus.
The pandemic has nonetheless necessitated some adjustments to his method. For safety reasons, many of the doctors, health experts, journalists and government officials interviewed here were recorded using a portable “COVID cam.” Others were filmed by the director of photography, Ben Bloodwell, from behind an elaborate camera setup that suggests a pathogen-proof version of Errol Morris’ Interrotron. If the tide of talking heads conjures the air of a high-def Zoom session with the boring bits cut out, that’s more than fitting — an extension of the endless video conference that so many of our lives have become.
And it didn’t have to come to this, as one subject after another reminds us. The arrival of a deadly airborne virus capable of asymptomatic transmission may have caught the nation off-guard when the first American coronavirus case was reported in Washington state in January. A testing program delayed by flawed diagnostic kits and reams of bureaucratic red tape didn’t help matters. But the efforts still might have fared better, as Gibney notes in his steady, somber narration, had the U.S. heeded the most important lesson from a nation like South Korea and its successful containment efforts: Let scientists, not politicians, drive the nation’s pandemic response.
Instead, the Trump administration, reluctant to impose tough shutdown measures in a booming economy and eager to differentiate itself from the pro-science Obama White House, took the opposite tack. Key figures like Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a leader on the CDC’s response to COVID-19, were sidelined for publicizing the seriousness of the virus and the once-unimaginable havoc it would soon wreak on every aspect of American life. Dr. Rick Bright, whose continual sounding of the alarm fell on deaf ears, ultimately turned whistleblower and met with immediate retaliation: His revelation that the Trump administration was peddling drugs like hydroxychloroquine for political reasons cost him his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. (He was moved into a narrower job at the National Institutes of Health, from which he just resigned earlier this week.)
These are just a few of the personal stories that collectively reflect a dispiriting pattern of indifference, negligence and outright obstruction within the executive branch. All the president’s sycophants are dutifully trotted out here, among them Alex Azar, the slickly vacuous Health and Human Services secretary, who was ultimately supplanted by a similarly upbeat Vice President Mike Pence as chair of the White House’s coronavirus task force. Minor villains like Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Deborah Birx get their due, as does the deftly heroic resistance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, even as his entreaties toward caution and alarm are repeatedly soft-pedaled by his colleagues.
One of the cruelest effects of the film’s swift, unblinking reportage is that it allows you to envision a (somewhat) happier alternate timeline. We are reminded that sane, functional governments learn from their past mistakes, as South Korea did following a 2015 MERS outbreak, and as the Obama administration did in response to H1N1 and Ebola. (Beth Cameron, a former member of the White House National Security Council, points to a detailed pandemic playbook that Trump inherited from Obama and then ignored.) A medical supply executive who voted for Trump in 2016 expresses shock that wearing masks could ever have become a political issue, as seen in a few early clips of supermarket tantrums.
The hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s charge — that Democrats have politicized the coronavirus — is not lost on the movie, even as it shows the pandemic’s human toll to be politically indiscriminate. That toll is measured here in images of endangered employees working in crowded meat-packing plants and tourists trapped aboard disease-ridden cruise ships. Virginia physician Dr. Taison Bell speaks about the virus’ disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people. (One aspect of the story omitted here, to its detriment, is Trump’s “China virus” rhetoric and the racist violence it has inflamed against Asian Americans.) Bell and other doctors also recount the early shortage of personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare workers — a crisis that the Trump administration actively fueled by turning the race for supplies into a competitive interstate lottery.
That mercenary response may have been rooted in bedrock Republican principles of free-market capitalism and limited government, but it was further exacerbated by a singular combination of presidential ignorance, mendacity, spite and ego. Trump is shown here to be what he has always been, an aggressive spewer of lies and banalities, from his insistence that the virus would eventually “just disappear” to the “totally under control” assurances that give the movie its title. His contempt for science is on full display, as is his ongoing trivialization of the virus’ impact, even as we’re reminded, from his taped interviews with the journalist Bob Woodward, that he was far more aware of the deadly consequences than he let on.
As a cinematic indictment of a Republican president up for reelection, “Totally Under Control” can’t help but sound an echo of the now 16-year-old “Fahrenheit 9/11,” with the obvious caveat that Trump is not George W. Bush, and Gibney, Hillinger and Harutyunyan are a far cry from Michael Moore. There are no cheap shots or in-person ambushes here; the polemics are sober, restrained and all the more authoritative for it. But the activist intent is the same. If the documentary doesn’t end with a “Vote for Biden” placard, consider it a sign of its respect for your intelligence. It trusts you to do the right thing precisely because those in power will not.
‘Totally Under Control’
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: Oct. 9 at Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; available Oct. 13 on VOD platforms and Oct. 20 on Hulu
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