Alex Gibney is known for being a prolific documentarian, leaning on a team of researchers, interviewers, and editors to help him tell ripped-from-the-headlines stories about the likes of Enron, WikiLeaks, and Russian interference in American elections. But he’s never had a turnaround time quite as rapid as the one for his latest film, Totally Under Control, a movie so up-to-the-minute that it actually ends with President Donald Trump testing positive for COVID-19. Gibney and his co-directors, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, didn’t waste any time with this project. Clearly, they wanted to get the movie in front of as many eyes as possible before voters go to the polls on November 3.
The doc’s title is a dig at Trump, whose message to the American people at the start of the coronavirus pandemic was that his administration was on top of everything, and that our daily lives should continue unaffected. As everyone knows, that promise didn’t exactly pan out. Investigative reporters, political analysts, and health experts have written extensively over the past six months about what exactly went awry, and why the United States’ response to COVID-19 has been exponentially worse than nearly every other country considered to be a global superpower. Totally Under Control functions as a sort of clearinghouse for those stories, shaping them into a narrative with a clear set of heroes and villains.
In the latter category? Everyone at the White House who had access to a wealth of information about how bad the pandemic could get—and about how other nations were managing it—and then chose not to do as much with it as they could’ve. Gibney and company argue that when Trump himself publicly downplayed the potential threat of the virus early in 2020, he set a tone that defined how many in the government and in the country at large would continue to respond. In the months that followed, as the danger to American lives and livelihoods became impossible to ignore, the Trump team had multiple opportunities to make up for some of its past mistakes. Instead, according to Totally Under Control, they made the situation worse by continually seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to reward their friends, to punish their political enemies, and to secure Trump’s re-election.
As he does with many of his movies, Gibney himself narrates Totally Under Control, which allows him to explain up top that the documentary was made under difficult conditions. Unable to travel around the world to do in-person interviews, the crew relied on what Gibney calls “COVID-cam,” a remote set-up that involved providing subjects with good-quality video and videoconferencing equipment, and a socially distanced crew member to operate it. (The interviews don’t look like they were shot via Zoom, in other words. They look professional.) The filmmakers fill in the gaps with animation and recent news footage, as well as enraging clips from social media of Americans angrily protesting any effort from corporations and local governments to get them to wear masks.
One recurring criticism of Gibney’s work is that some of his films feel rushed and under-thought, as though he felt all he needed to tell a story was a point of view and a few lengthy interviews. But at his best (with documentaries like Client 9, Going Clear, and The Inventor), Gibney and his staff have skillfully woven together multiple storylines and ideas into something informative, entertaining, and easy to understand. Somewhat surprisingly—given how quickly this movie was made—Totally Under Control is one of the better products of the Gibney factory. It’s comprehensive and measured, covering as much of this rapidly escalating catastrophe as possible.
If anything, the biggest knock against Totally Under Control is that with a length of just over two hours, it sometimes feels as exhausting as it does exhaustive. Gibney, Hillinger, and Harutyunyan have so much good material that they occasionally linger longer than they need to on this saga’s many subplots, like the failures of the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention to produce a usable COVID test, or the details of several super-spreader events around the world. It’s over an hour into the film before it gets to the moment in early March when sports started shutting down and Americans began to realize just how disruptive this disease was going to be.
Still, given how much has happened since then, it’s useful to have a slickly assembled package of data points and anecdotes, to serve as a record of just what we’ve been through… and, perhaps, why it all went so miserably. After carefully establishing what was happening around the world in early 2020—versus what was happening in the U.S., where various health agency memos referred to the potential virus response as not a matter of “time-sensitive urgency”—Totally Under Control in its second hour shifts into a document of one outrage after another, detailing how a White House staff filled with short-sighted opportunists and small-government activists was incapable of making the kind of big moves and public appeals required to slow COVID’s spread.
Anyone who’s kept up with the news this year will undoubtedly already know many of the stories and scenarios laid out in Totally Under Control. But Gibney, Hillinger, and Harutyunyan do an impressive job—on a tight deadline, no less—of making the case for why the mismanagement of this pandemic matters. By lining up an impressive roster of doctors, scientists, and pre-Trump-era public servants to describe their first-hand experiences, this documentary ends up pitting the people who work for the betterment of humanity against the people who look out for themselves. Gibney then asks viewers to pick a side.