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‘Totally Under Control’ Film Review: The Horror Film of the Year Is a Documentary About COVID-19

Alex Gibney and his co-directors detail the U.S. government’s failure to respond, and it’s like the opening act of a post-apocalyptic dystopia

A feature-length version of the kind of montage that usually opens a dystopian thriller about a post-apocalyptic society, “Totally Under Control” is a terrifying and infuriating examination of the rise of the COVID-19 virus and of the many ways in which the U.S. government intentionally failed its citizens. As one of the film’s many experts notes, public health didn’t fail the people; the government’s decision to ignore public health warnings and standards made the current crisis happen.

Directors Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”), Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger (“How to Fix an Election”) have made the kind of historical document that future scholars will consult to get an idea of the impact of the pandemic on the United States and on the rest of the world, but watching it right now is akin to viewing a meta-horror film like “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” whereby the audience understands that the terror exists beyond what we see on the screen. The bad calls have been coming from inside the White House.

Shooting this documentary in the midst of a pandemic necessarily requires a lot of talking heads, using a two-way camera system that the filmmakers have provided for their subjects, some of whom are at home by themselves, while others are seen addressing a crew that is on the other side of a safety barrier. But there’s also plenty of news footage — not to mention viral videos of people freaking out about having to wear masks in the grocery store, and eerie overhead shots of mass graves — involved in telling this story.

We open with an interviewee who will provide some of the most damning testimony along the way – Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA); before the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in the United States and South Korea in January of this year, Bright had run a multi-week simulation with a fictional outbreak in the fall of 2019, publishing his findings in a study called “Crimson Contamination.” The study spelled out all the weak points that the public health system might face in the event of a real pandemic, and it was promptly ignored by Robert Kadlec, the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services. (HHS, the CDC, and the White House all refused interview requests for the film.)

Once the virus is identified, we see the U.S. government flail about (HHS secretary Alex Azar tells the president a few weeks in that the virus could be a major issue, and that HHS had everything under control, and then the president apparently only heard the second half of that statement) while South Korea, having faced public outcry for some of its mishandling of the MERS crisis in 2015, had a stronger public health response in place and leapt into action.

The film makes us privy to internal emails that showed many experts in the U.S. seeing the disaster that was coming, even as the government continued to traffic in magical thinking (“One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear”) and historical erasure (we hear the president say, “There’s never been anything like this”) over an e-mail that notes “we’re looking at 1918 all over again.

“Totally Under Control” is undeniably hard to watch, since it’s a documentary about an unresolved issue that culminates with uncertainty about the future. (The president’s COVID diagnosis happened the day after the film was completed.) And it’s a pity that the citizens who need to see it the most are the ones most likely to avoid it or to decry it in the public sphere, since it contradicts the Fox News version of events.

Lest the filmmakers be accused of partisanship, they include Michael Bowen, executive vice president of medical supply company Prestige Ameritech, who says he voted for Trump and that he had petitioned the government to build up its N95 mask supply during the Obama administration, and continued to do so with the Trump administration, only to be ignored by both. The film acknowledges some gaps in the Obama team’s response to H1N1, but also notes that his administration left behind a very detailed pandemic playbook, one that we see both White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany (now diagnosed with COVID herself) and Mitch McConnell blatantly lie about.

The film tackles the story from various viewpoints, with reporters discussing both the science and the policy angles, insight from former top officers from HHS and the CDC, and an infuriating timeline of inaction and misinformation from the top echelon of government. We also get to hear from a member of Jared Kushner’s so-called “task force,” which wound up being a bunch of 20-something volunteers trying desperately to track down medical equipment with no help from seasoned government buyers.

For a film that has clearly come together quickly – in opens theatrically October 9, goes to streaming on October 13, and then Hulu on October 23, all in time for Election Day – there’s never a sense that “Totally Under Control” is a rush job. From the masterful editing by Lindy Jankura (“Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story”) and Alex Keipper (“Asian Americans”), which allows us to keep track of the many players across several continents, to the understatedly chilling score by Brian Deming and Peter Nashel (“I, Tonya”), this is a documentary that feels confident and intentional at every turn. It’s a story we need to know now, and it’s an essential warning for future generations.