Totally Under Control is a damning investigation into America’s mishandling of the coronavirus

Totally Under Control (now on Apple TV) explores America’s failure to handle the coronavirus outbreak, arriving well timed to influence the Presidential election. Here’s critic Luke Buckmaster’s review.

Timeliness was obviously a key prerogative in the making and release of Totally Under Control, a documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney,  Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger that exhaustively investigates America’s handling of the coronavirus, for which words such as “catastrophic” spring to mind. It’s hardly a coincidence that the film arrives in the thick of a Presidential election campaign, presumably timed in the hope of causing maximum damage for Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. His words downplaying the pandemic coined the film’s title: “We have it totally under control, it’s one person coming from China,” the former reality TV star famously said, in that whiny South Parkian voice of his.

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The challenge of making a film in the heat of the moment, with the virus raging around the world and the body count in America climbing, has obvious drawbacks, such as the risk of looking dated. Trump’s contracting of the coronavirus is an obvious example. But it also, I suspect, created a productive kind of tension, almost like a competitive energy, challenging the filmmakers to tell an incomplete story as completely as possible, with the benefit of some hindsight but not much in the scheme of things—stressing the need for them to determine for themselves crucial pivots and points of inflection.

I’ve argued in the past that Gibney’s documentaries, which cover topical issues such as Scientology, Catholic church sex scandals and army interrogation practices, can feel like Wikipedia articles: blow-by-blow summaries recapping key events and discussions, always prioritizing content over form, and usually packaged in a clear and sequencial way. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this—and there’s certainly an art to it—but sometimes his films can feel like they’re cruising on autopilot (I single him out because Gibney is the veteran Oscar-winning director—and the film is definitely in his style—whereas this is the first feature-length doco from both Harutyunyan and Hillinger).

The immediacy of the events depicted in Totally Under Control threw a spanner in the works and pushed the filmmakers out of their comfort zone, even resulting in a degree of technological ingenuity—the creation of a portable “COVID-cam”, which was mailed to interviewees. One can sense an extra degree of rigour, even if the results come across a little cookie-cutter at times.

The film begins by introducing 2020 as a year so surprising it even blew the minds of sci-fi writers. This year, Gibney says in voice-over, has long been synonymous with “predictions about the future and the ruthless power of technology,” and a world “dominated and controlled by information-based mega-corporations.” So far, so Minority Report. But then Gibney switches gear, declaring “all of that turned out to be a technocratic illusion, when nature set loose a terrible disease that took advantage of the very connectivity we have manufactured.”

I get his point: that life has a way of yanking the rug from beneath our feet, surprising us through various, shall we say, creative applications of our own technologies and processes. But why does the spread of the coronavirus suddenly turn the dystopian prevalence of mega-corporations into a “technocratic illusion”? Don’t we have both at the same time: ruthless technology and a ruthless disease, aided and abetted by—as Gibney put it—the same, or aspects of the same, infrastructure?

Anyway. The directors sift through and arrange a large amount of information, with plenty of news footage and talking heads, returning to Trump as a source of narrative triggers. Half an hour in for instance we hear the President declaring “there’s never been anything like this in history, nobody’s ever seen anything like this” while the directors zoom into a string of text from an important document, the following words highlighted: “This is exactly what happened in 1918.” Cue a section recapping the 1918 Spanish flu influenza, which killed somewhere in the vicinity of 50 million people.

Sometimes Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger seem reluctant to explore their own inferences, as if in fear of slanting the film in a specific ideological direction. Take for example the question of what root cause underlies Trump’s failures. It would be easy (and not entirely unreasonable) to say the President is a nincompoop clearly unfit for the Oval Office, but that would be to overlook a corrosive underpinning ideology: the conservative belief in small government and that the ‘free market’ will save us during times of need. It didn’t, it can’t, it wouldn’t, it won’t.

Totally Under Control does a good job recapping what happened and how it went down, joining the dots together to illustrate a portrait of systemic failure, exacerbated by Trump’s unquestionably awful management. It seems obvious however that the really interesting COVID-19 documentaries are yet to arrive. The ones that will make us think deeply; the ones that will prompt us to reassess long-held assumptions; the ones that might inspire us to build a world that relies more heavily on science and compassion.