Donald Trump’s personal battle with COVID-19 is the starkest example imaginable that the president has bungled his response to a pandemic that, to date, has claimed over 210,000 American lives. While the commander-in-chief’s infection only warrants a textual coda in Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, the tireless documentarian’s latest is a damning account of Trump’s horrid—and criminally negligent—handling of the crisis, from his downplaying of the virus’ seriousness, to his refusal to champion mask-wearing and social distancing, his mismanagement of PPE and ventilator demands, his squabbling with scientists and state governors, his dissemination of false facts and figures, his manipulation of the CDC, his promotion of dangerous “miracle cures,” and his willful disregard for the health and safety of himself and those around him, thus jeopardizing the country’s national security.
(Did I miss anything? It’s been a long 2020.)
In short, it’s an up-to-the-minute summary of the nightmare Trump has put America through, told in exhaustive, definitive, and infuriating detail.
Premiering on Tuesday, Oct. 13 on VOD, Totally Under Control was produced in secret by Gibney and co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger over the past five months, and it primarily focuses on the initial stages of our ongoing catastrophe. Per the documentarian’s tradition, it’s a sharp and concise report of recent events comprised of conversations with experts (including New York Times reporter Michael Shear, who just tested positive after flying with Trump on Air Force One), archival news clips (including a parade of Trump’s greatest deceitful hits), and digital graphics that complement Gibney’s narrated commentary.
Since we’ve all just lived through this tragic tale, much of what’s on display will be extremely familiar to viewers, as will its minor omissions, such as Trump’s marginalization of Dr. Anthony Fauci, his slandering of masks as “politically correct,” his fondness for bleach-based remedies, and his attacks on Joe Biden for adhering to the very precautionary measures he’s willfully flouted at press conferences and rallies. Yet even if Gibney can’t include every one of Trump’s high crimes, what he does deliver is a decisive denunciation of the presidential failures that have led us to our present situation.
With interviews conducted via a newly designed remote camera system, and with subjects often wearing masks when they first appear on camera, Totally Under Control boasts a formal approach that itself is a rebuke to the Trump administration’s disregard for safety measures. Its talking heads are uniformly critical of the commander-in-chief, laying out in chronological fashion the many ways America’s leadership refused to adequately prepare for COVID-19’s arrival, properly assess its gravity, and act accordingly to contain its spread. Gibney’s film illustrates that the powers-that-be began falling down on the job almost as soon as the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, as well as once Washington reported its initial patient, who wasn’t tested until four days after he became ill—meaning he’d already spread it to upwards of 2,000 fellow citizens.
Gibney’s straightforward storytelling allows for a lucid diagnosis of the many missteps along the path to our current predicament. The lack of urgency shown by officials. The shortage of testing kits, which then turned out to be faulty—thereby stymieing testing during the calamity’s crucial early junctures. The creation of a task force led by people with scant scientific expertise but plenty of political motivations. The administration’s refusal to cut through bureaucratic red tape to get tests manufactured (and employ the Defense Production Act), and its institution of limited testing guidelines which didn’t target community spread. Its desire to place its faith in the free market to take care of PPE needs—consequently leading to competition between states and the federal government. And, of course, the endless Trump lies (“This is their new hoax”; “Anybody that wants a test can get a test”; “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear”).
To emphasize that all those shortcomings were avoidable and/or correctable, Gibney juxtaposes America’s pandemic procedures with those of South Korea. Through rigorous national testing and tracing mandates (inspired by their prior virus-related crises), South Korea got ahold of COVID-19 before it became unmanageable. We, on the other hand, opted for an approach of inter-agency squabbling, delays, disinformation, and the politicization of masks—here underlined by viral social media videos of Republicans throwing fits at grocery stores, and coughing on strangers, over their objections to face-covering requirements.
“For the most part, though, there’s nothing even bleakly funny about his documentary; the overarching approach is clinical, and the mood is despondent and outraged.”
Gibney’s account is so sobering and enraging that when he attempts a mildly cheeky moment—scoring a montage of states’ efforts to import PPE to C.W. McCall’s “Convoy”—it comes across as inapt gallows humor. For the most part, though, there’s nothing even bleakly funny about his documentary; the overarching approach is clinical, and the mood is despondent and outraged. Trump’s support for hydroxychloroquine, which he learned about from New York’s Dr. Vladimir Zelenko (who touts his drug cocktail in the film, to unconvincing ends), serves as a particularly maddening passage. However, it’s no more galling than Gibney’s explanation of Project Airbridge, a program in which the government subsidized five private health-care companies to buy and sell PPE to the states, thereby giving these firms an unfair advantage over their competitors, and forcing governors to literally bid against each other, eBay-style, for essential goods.
It’s no surprise to learn that one of those companies was Gilead, the manufacturer of Remdesivir—a drug whose patents are owned (and whose research was funded) by the federal government. The Trump administration allowed Gilead to charge exorbitant fees for Remdesivir, and now, it’s the drug that Trump has spent the past few days taking, giving it a PR platform that money couldn’t buy. The entire system, Totally Under Control persuasively argues, is a corrupt mess, as Trump and his cronies have exploited the pandemic for profiteering gain while simultaneously downplaying its direness in order to keep the economy going—and, Trump believed, to maintain his chances for re-election.
With the president a recent patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, his post-debate poll numbers plummeting—thanks to a variety of fresh scandals, including the bombshells from his tax returns—and nationwide infections on the rise, it’s obvious that Trump’s strategy of self-interest has, at least as of early October, backfired. Certainly, it’s done nothing for the country at large, mired as it is in a disaster that, Totally Under Control contends, could have been mitigated by a response that prioritized caution, clarity, cohesive teamwork, and sacrifice. Gibney’s doc is yet another reminder that that we were denied such a vital strategic reaction to the pandemic by an egomaniacal and incompetent president who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. As Prestige Ameritech executive vice president Michael Bowen says, “Our manager failed us.”