Directed by: Alex Gibney and Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger
Premise: A documentary about the spread of coronavirus in the United States. Featuring interviews with journalists, government officials, and medical experts, the film offers a high level view of what happened between January and September 2020.
What Works: Totally Under Control comes from filmmaker Alex Gibney; he is one of the three credited directors and the film was produced through Gibney’s production company. Gibney’s documentaries are distinguished by their polished production values and incorporate elements like reenactments and dramatic or ironic musical choices. Totally Under Control features those elements but it is a little more restrained than some of Gibney’s other works. The filmmakers trust the material to be compelling enough and Totally Under Control communicates its story with a sober tone. This is primarily a political story and Totally Under Control tells that narrative quite well. The documentary provides a timeline of events, covering the spread of the coronavirus and the way the federal government failed to contain it, and the film features an impressive roster of journalists, officials, and disease experts to explain the inside story. The emergence of a pandemic was predictable but the central takeaway from Totally Under Control is that the spread of COVID-19 in the United States was not inevitable. Balancing deft storytelling with detailed explanations, this documentary works through the critical decision points and how federal leadership made circumstances worse at virtually every turn. Special attention is paid to the collapse of supply chains for personal protective equipment, the failure to implement a national testing and tracking program, and the way politically motivated misinformation caused confusion among the public. The filmmakers also take a brief look back at the 1918 flu pandemic and the 2009 H1N1 and 2013 Ebola outbreaks as well as the way South Korea successfully dealt with coronavirus. This provides a barometer for the failure of the United States government in 2020 and gives that failure a sense of scale. Within two hours, this documentary provides a neat summary of institutional failures that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
What Doesn’t: Totally Under Control was released in the fall of 2020 so it’s essentially the first third of the COVID-19 story. The documentary works as an explanation of what happened and how and why things got as bad as they did. With its focus on the federal government, Totally Under Control largely misses an important aspect of the United States’ coronavirus catastrophe: the role of individual citizens and the choices many of us made that contributed to the spread of the virus. The documentary’s federal focus also omits failures in leadership at the state level where regulations were inadequate or capricious. The film’s praise of South Korea was somewhat premature, as the country saw a spike in coronavirus cases in late 2020.
Bottom Line: Totally Under Control summarizes the spread of coronavirus in the United States in a way that is efficient and dramatically engaging. This isn’t the complete story but the documentary summarizes the failed federal response and leaves us with a troubling image of administrative incompetence.
Episode: #844 (March 21, 2021)