Alex Gibney churns out so many documentaries. This year alone, he’s made three of them. Even though I was riveted by some of his works including Zero Days and the Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side, I came into Totally Under Control with an ounce of skepticism, simply because this story of the pandemic is far from over. Was it really appropriate to have a documentary summing everything up now?
Turns out, Totally Under Control shows us just how much has happened within ten months.
The System Was Already Broken
I’ve been through countless dinner conversations with my family about the horrible logistical issues that will come about from a pandemic like COVID-19. My family is from Taiwan, and growing up, I have heard news broadcasts and stories about how Taiwan survived outbreaks like SARS in 2003 and the swine flu in 2009.
In my lifetime, there was nothing like those outbreaks here in the US, and so there were many discussions where we predicted the types of problems that will come about. As the months progressed, we realized that we were correct in most of them, but we had no idea just how terrible the situation would be.
My respect for Totally Under Control largely stems from its segments where it explains logistical problems the country faced, from faulty test kits that came from contaminated reagents to the one my dad and I nailed 100% on – supply chain.
The best moments in Gibney’s script come from showing the unbelievable frustrations that arise from the supply chain being broken and the ecosystem being disrupted. States would bid against each other for personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks, and ventilators. As New York governor Andrew Cuomo says at one point, “It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states.” Gibney, alongside Cuomo’s actual press conference, would then provide a faux eBay UI template that shows different state governors bidding and rebidding over a ventilator. You watch that price climb and climb and you think to yourself just how the fuck did we get in this position.
A Stark Contrast
Another highlight in Totally Under Control, though this would be obvious to you if you’ve done your research, is America’s handling of testing compared with South Korea’s. If you’re familiar with the latter country’s handling, you would hear of things like drive-through testing, GPS tracking, and text alerts to individuals. You know… things that America didn’t have.
Some key facts and enlightening pieces of information include South Korea’s history in handling the MERS epidemic in 2015 and how that sparked the government to pass new laws that rapidly sped the approval process for testing equipment. Through their mistakes in 2015, they came ready when COVID-19 arrived.
Gibney doesn’t shy away from these contrasts; more than once, he would literally place America in the left half of the frame and South Korea in the right half of the frame for a straight comparison. The script also spends enough time exploring the previous presidency, that of Barack Obama, and his handling of the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks. Though those two events had their own respective criticisms, lessons were learned, and the administration made efforts to pass that knowledge down to the next president, through a 69-paged playbook. As you would guess, the Trump administration threw that playbook out and replaced it with two reports of their own – a frustrating display of politics.
And I didn’t even mention the part where Trump started to politicize mask-wearing.
Totally Under Control: Too Soon but a Relentless Assault of Facts
If you have been an avid follower of the news regarding the coronavirus ever since January, then a lot of Totally Under Control might not be new to you. You will revisit a lot of the earliest events of COVID in America, from the first death in Seattle to the Diamond Princess outbreak. A lot of the film’s coverage can be seen as a “too soon” approach of informing the audience. After all, we’re still in the middle of the pandemic and there are still no signs of it slowing down.
But if you’re looking for a Wikipedia summary of the government’s incompetence at handling this pandemic, this is a straightforward and relentless assault of facts. From inexperienced volunteers forced to sign NDAs to Prestige Ameritech VP Michael Bowen being ignored by the president that he voted for, Totally Under Control offers Trump and his associates no place to hide.
It tells us something that a lot of us probably already know, that Trump is an elitist who prioritizes loyalty over actual experience in the scientific and epidemic field. Everything Dr. Anthony Fauci says, someone like Mike Pence would come along and say the opposite. Then, out of nowhere, the FDA works to approve hydroxychloroquine as an official drug to combat COVID-19, despite there being no scientific evidence that it would work – all because Dr. Zev Zelenko, Fox News, and Trump himself are encouraging it. Gibney’s urgent documentary just proves the weight of US politics suffocate the healthcare workers, the people who are actually fighting every day to save lives. At the end of the day, it’s the American people who pay for it.
We’re at 225,000 deaths and counting. Please stay safe. And wear a mask.
Did you see Totally Under Control? What did you think of the film? Share below!
Totally Under Control was released online on October 13, 2020.
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