‘Totally Under Control’ Review — A Tragic Portrait of America’s Pandemic Failures

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Totally Under Control Review

Coronavirus! It’s everywhere and has been for most of 2020. And despite the pleas of a certain infected world leader who doesn’t want the deadly virus to dominate our lives, the fact remains that the current global pandemic has upended our lives since early March and there’s been little action to abate the American contagion. Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, working with co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, examines the American response to the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 in the documentary Totally Under Control. The film is a frustrating retrospective, full of clips from moments that seem like they were a lifetime ago. Through interviews and archival footage Gibney, Hillinger, and Harutyunyan craft the first draft of documenting the dysfunction and chaos behind the unending failure to rein in the coronavirus.

One of the most maddening aspects of the pandemic has been the rabid politicization of a public health crisis, and Totally Under Control is no different. The film is inherently political as runs down the sweeping mismanagement by the incumbent weeks before the election, meticulously piecing together the fragments of truth to craft a tragic portrait of catastrophic failure. No matter how well Totally Under Control is put together and no matter how damning its assessment, this documentary will not alter any votes or sway any minds.

Totally Under Control blends its use of recent archival footage alongside new interviews with various journalists and medical professionals, recounting the early days of the pandemic through up until just over a week ago. The film takes a couple of detours in retracing the origins of the American outbreak, including the damning recollection of how the current administration disbanded the pandemic response unit from the National Security Council in 2018. As scientific voices were aware of the looming threat that started in a wet market in Wuhan, China, the political dysfunction that has been inescapable since 2016 derailed the scientists and institutions that were designed to combat a deadly virus.

There is perhaps no more persuasive voice in Totally Under Control than that of Dr. Rick Bright, the former head of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a key agency tasked with developing diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. Dr. Bright was first thrust into the public sphere when he was reassigned following his public objections to hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug which the president boosted as a kind of cure-all for the virus. In his recollections Dr. Bright clearly lays out how politics interfered with public health since the start of the pandemic, and his testimony would’ve been thoroughly compelling even if he hadn’t publicly resigned from his position this very week (even publishing an op-ed in The Washington Post just days ago).

For a documentary that is about as current as it could possibly be, Totally Under Control still feels incomplete. It’s not the fault of Gibney, Hillinger, and Harutyunyan. It’s simply that America, and the world for the most part, is still in the grips of this pandemic. Just to illustrate how quickly the news develops and shifts in this crazy moment in time, the film features interviews with New York Times reporter Michael Shear, a correspondent who has just recently tested positive for the virus after the ongoing outbreak at the White House. It shows just how fast the news moves in this moment of madness that one subject is infected and another resigns from their post in protest in the week that the film finishes its final edit. As a topper, the film concludes with a title card about the president’s positive coronavirus diagnosis, which happened a mere day after the film was finished.

Over the next few years, documentarians, journalists, and other will be looking back in horror at the failures that led us to this perilous point in history. Totally Under Control will serve as a jumping off point for the future explorations, the initial pass through in trying to piece together this astonishing failure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibney and company were already working on their follow up. Watching this documentary is like revisiting a nightmare while you’re still asleep, it’s terrifying and doesn’t seem real but you can’t see beyond it because you’re still in it.

Totally Under Control
  • Overall Score


A maddening reflection on America’s pandemic failures, Totally Under Control is an incomplete first draft of the historical record on a cataclysmic public health response stymied by politics and the deranged narcissism of the nation’s president.

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