TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Director: Alex Gibney.

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The US is headed into one of its most contentious and, arguably, most important elections of the past century. The key issues are the economy and the pandemic. America has 5% of the world’s population but approximately one third of contagious infections. With the number of COVID cases increasing daily and the death toll passing 230,000 the timing is perfect for ace documentarian Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, etc) to drop his latest film which looks at the pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the globe. It’s not hard to appreciate the irony behind the title as Gibney explores how technological flaws, regulatory hurdles and lapses in leadership within the Trump administration have let the virus spread undetected for weeks, ensuring that it has become almost impossible to contain. Totally Under Control is a searing look at the crisis and shows how the world’s most powerful country failed to act in a timely and responsible fashion and instead descended into chaos and disaster.

Gibney lays out how the virus spread in step by step fashion and uses a timeline to effectively trace the course of the virus since the first diagnosis. Tellingly he contrasts the US response with that of South Korea, as both countries apparently diagnosed their first patients on the same day way back in January. But the Korean scientists and medical personnel took a far more aggressive approach to trying to control the spread of the virus whereas the US officials largely ignored it and downplayed it.

Gibney also points out how Trump politicised the virus for his own ends, and was reluctant to close down the economy because he felt that would hurt his re-election campaign as he was running on the strength of the US economy under his stewardship. The Obama administration had left behind a playbook for handling pandemics, put together during the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, but it was virtually ignored by the Trump administration.

Gibney graphically illustrates how the virus spreads in crowded places, and there plenty of disturbing footage of bodies being carried out of aged care centres and nursing homes.  There is also a brief segment paralleling the 1918 influenza pandemic with the COVID 19 outbreak, which makes for a sobering comparison.  

As usual, Gibney has thoroughly and diligently researched the subject and the result is meticulous, eye opening and disturbing. There is a wealth of information crammed into two hours, a lot of it quite technical and specific in nature. The film shows how Trump expressed a terrible disdain for science and ignored his medical experts, declaring the virus “a Democrat hoax”, repeatedly saying that it would miraculously disappear. The White House seemed to ignore early warnings about the highly infectious nature of the disease, which presented its own unique set of challenges. Trump even systematically dismantled the expertise within his administration, replacing it with political appointees.

Gibney has interviewed a range of scientists, virologists and veteran reporters who have covered the White House to gain some insights into the mishandling of the pandemic. Many of them have put their reputations and careers on the line by speaking out about Trumps’ mishandling of the virus.  Fittingly, the interviews are conducted by Gibney and cinematographer Ben Bloodwell using safety protocols and technology. There are plenty of damning revelations as he uncovers scientific hubris, the failings of the Trump administration, corruption in the supplying of PPE equipment to front line responders, confusion and frustration amongst the many labs running tests, and even misinformation about possible vaccines and treatments.

Working with editors Lindy Jankura and Alex Keipper, Gibney has assembled a wealth of interview material and archival footage to present this comprehensive and frightening picture.

Much of the film was shot in secrecy.  But it is up to date, as it includes some brief snippets of that February interview between Trump and veteran journalist Bob Woodward in which Trump admitted how deadly the airborne virus was. And a postscript tells us that just one day after Gibney finished working on the film Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID 19.

Or did he? Was that just another lie, or another piece of manipulation by the master conman to earn some sympathy in the lead up to the election? Only history will tell, and that is the subject for another documentary and another day.

★★★☆

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