Drama critics have a word for COVID-19, courtesy of the ancient Greeks: “nemesis.” In theater, this useful term applies to the inevitable downfall that awaits the wicked, the prideful and the overly confident. Decades from now, historians will look back on the coronavirus outbreak as the thing that derailed President Donald J. Trump, and perhaps the “re-greatening” America in the process.
Joining the situation in medias res, such dire predictions may seem premature — although that doesn’t stop investigative documentary superstar Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) from rushing his righteously compelling exposé “Totally Under Control” out before the election. That timing tells you everything about what Gibney hopes to achieve: The goal isn’t to be definitive so much as influential, without compromising the facts, which Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths to obscure.
To get ’er done on schedule, Gibney enlisted co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan to divide and conquer the film’s many logistical challenges: not just powering through the list of potential interviewees (including some in South Korea) but devising ways to film them according to COVID-cautious safety protocols. That meant sending sources sterile camera equipment, conducting some interviews via video conference and booking local cinematographers to shoot on their behalf, filming from behind an elaborate plastic-wrapped barrier.
The three co-directors “show their work” in this regard, as if to say, “Look, we’re taking this more seriously than the Trump administration.” It also gives the film a kind of frontline urgency, at least to audiences who’ve been dutifully self-isolating this whole time: The filmmakers care enough about uncovering the truth that they’re out there playing war reporters in this deadly battle against an invisible virus. (Some of the precautions may seem more theatrical than practical when the film is re-watched once we know more about COVID.)
By the looks of it, the biggest obstacle wasn’t the virus but Trump. As former federal vaccine chief Rick Bright puts it, “It’s not easy to come forward in this administration,” alleging that the president retaliated against him for speaking out against Trump’s failure to act during the critical early window. Therein lies the problem with rushing a documentary like this, since so many of the inside observers who will be willing to go on the record once Trump is removed from office are for the moment chastened by fear of repercussion.
Among those who do talk, former HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, White House supply-chain volunteer (and subsequent whistleblower) Max Kennedy and New York Times reporter Michael Shear (infected via the recent Rose Garden super-spreader event) all serve to illuminate the mess that has been the first few months of Trump’s pandemic response. Coming at the situation from various angles, they reveal how the president is directly responsible for sowing the misinformation and obstructing the aid that could have prevented a great many of the 200,000-plus American deaths to date.
Just a year ago, if a screenwriter had pitched a thriller with the plot of 2020, he almost certainly would have been laughed out of the room for so brazenly defying plausibility. Not simply the pandemic aspect. That’s been greenlit before, dramatized with remarkable realism in “Contagion,” and to a more hysterically Hollywood-ized degree in “Outbreak.” Scientists were the heroes in both those films, as they often are when science itself is the villain. What would surely seem unbelievable to most is the way the coronavirus response has been politicized in the United States, or as Gibney puts it in his narration, “Ignoring expert advice became an act of patriotism.”
Did Trump really believe the things he told the American people early on — that COVID-19 wasn’t deadly, that closing borders would be enough to contain it and that one day, “like a miracle,” it would just disappear? The real question, to quote the Watergate investigation, should be “What did the president know and when did he know it?” By updating the moving-target doc right down to its release (Oct. 9 in drive-ins, Oct. 13 on demand and Oct. 20 to Hulu), the filmmakers were able to include Bob Woodward’s bombshell revelation that Trump knew the dangers and chose to downplay them.
Why? By interviewing a handful of insiders and experts, “Totally Under Control” suggests that the only thing Trump was effectively controlling was the economy, which he saw as the key to his reelection. Even within the limited window of time the movie examines, there’s a seemingly infinite number of topics on which to concentrate, and it’s a testament to Gibney’s approach — honed over dozens of docs — that he can shape the chaos into something coherent. (Like “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis, Gibney works best with complex subjects, shaping the information into compelling, thriller-like narratives.)
Stuck at home, laid off or furloughed, many Americans spent the months the film spans glued to the news, so it’s not easy to offer fresh angles on information they’ve likely already heard. But lest you think “Totally Under Control” is still too close to have adequate perspective, consider how the rest of us are: bombarded by daily updates, likely missing certain details (like the “Red Dawn” warnings a group of alarmed scientists sent to Trump officials, or the way rural New York doctor Vladimir Zelenko caught the president’s attention, touting the benefits of hydroxychloroquine via social media), we’re the ones who haven’t had time to sort through everything. The doc does that for us, organizing the intel through a slick mix of news clips and less familiar footage (mass graves, deserted city centers and CG-enhanced depictions of virus transfer), even if the situation is far from over.
To put it in a pop-culture context, “Totally Under Control” is the “Avengers: Infinity War” of corona docs, wrapping with the snap (a double-snap, when you consider the irony that Trump tested positive the day after the film was completed). Its title reflective of the early, overtly hubristic claim that the administration was on top of the situation, the film ends on a cliffhanger, with the COVID-19 death toll having crossed 1 million worldwide, more than 20% of whom have perished in the United States (a country that comprises just 4.25% of the world population). Subsequent docs will surely tell a different story, after survivors have risen up and confronted the individual they deem responsible — and Gibney et al. want this film to be instrumental in that solution.
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