‘Totally Under Control’ review: Alex Gibney documentary dissects failures in the US coronavirus response


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Those interviews tap into a sobering array of voices weighing in on how political considerations lead to an ineffective response, juxtaposing the US with South Korea. Those weighing in include Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), who recently resigned from his job at the National Institute of Health and tears up discussing the challenges speaking the truth to those currently in power.

A separate thread comes from Max Kennedy Jr., a former volunteer for the White House Covid-19 Supply-Chain task force, who turned whistleblower after working under Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Kennedy (the grandson of Robert Kennedy) thought he’d just be assisting seasoned pros and was stunned to discover that he and other 20-somethings were being asked to play key roles in tracking down medical supplies.

Gibney and fellow directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan essentially condense 10 months of news into two hours, with Gibney (who also narrated) noting that Dr. Deborah Birx was chosen for her high-profile role by a White House “interested in packaging science to serve partisan goals.”

The filmmakers say their efforts to include comments from the Trump administration, including requests to speak with President Trump or Vice President Pence, who led the White House’s coronavirus task force, went unanswered.

“Totally Under Control” derives its title, appropriately, from one of President Trump’s early pronouncements about the coronavirus, insisting the threat was contained before it ripped through US society. It was only one of the times his claims contradicted reality, such as his statement in March that “Anyone who wants a test can get a test.”
Medical personnel shown wearing face shields in 'Totally Under Control.' (Courtesy of Neon)
One of the most troubling interludes involves Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who, as director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, gave a frank Feb. 25 assessment about the stark scenario the US faced, saying it was “not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when” the country will face a serious outbreak.

Bright called those public remarks “a turning point” after the upbeat talk coming from the administration, and Messonnier’s comments unleashed a furious response within the administration due to its concerns about spooking the stock market.

Others interviewed for the documentary include New York Times reporter Michael Shear, who is among those who recently contracted the virus through the outbreak connected to the White House.
Gibney’s dizzying level of documentary work includes “Agents of Chaos,” a deep dive into the Trump-Russia nexus for HBO. Like that project, “Totally Under Control” serves as an indictment of the president that unfolds with the urgency of a thriller. It’s no accident, obviously, that the latest film was assembled in time for its release before the election, a lightning-quick effort relative to the usual demands of the genre.
All told, there’s not a whole lot new here. Still, for anyone who hasn’t waded through Bob Woodward’s book “Rage,” or deeply reported accounts by the New York Times and others laying out Trump administration shortcomings, Gibney and company have delivered what is clearly intended to be a powerful closing argument, pulling the case together. And to underscore the title’s ironic nature, the evidence suggests it’s a response characterized more by chaos than control.

“Totally Under Control” is available on demand Oct. 13, then premieres Oct. 20 on Hulu.

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