YOU MAY THINK you know the back story behind the coronavirus pandemic. You probably do know how it has impacted your life and your immediate circle. But when you have finished watching Alex Gibney’s magnificently made documentary Totally Under Control which is about how the world’s richest power dropped the ball in the biggest plague of the century, your perspectives on the era in which we are living may be bolder and clearer than ever.
Made in secret over a period of five months, this two-hour piece of riveting film work is not an essay on an illness. A tale of political power and lumpen ignorance, on paper this could have represented the ultimate in science fiction narrative. All the elements are there, from an unsolvable lethal disease to a dangerous idiot of a world power leader who lies unashamedly to his constituency and a government that is all thumbs. But alas, this is not something penned by Stephen King.
Structured around a timeline which begins on 20 January 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in both South Korea and the US, the piece looks at how the different countries dealt with the stark realities of the pandemic, leaving, to date, over 200 000 Americans, but less than 1 000 South Koreans, dead. This is a thread through the film which compares the two strategies very clearly.
And the grotesquely crude gestures and ignorant platitudes trotted out by US President Donald Trump are presented in terms which will not shock you – because his monomaniacal foolishness has pervaded everything you look at – but they might nauseate you, because of the unequivocally cavalier approach he has taken in the name of something that is clearly lethal and beyond his ken. When you see this character tottering on a golf course or whispering sweet nothings to his wife in front of the Taj Mahal in India while his country was falling to pieces and hundreds of thousands of his citizens were dying, you get the picture. When you look at footage in which he mocks scientific opinion and nourishes his country’s bottom feeders with aggressive pandemic denialism, you get goosebumps. Footage of choirs singing in triumphant celebration of American identity, while the pandemic is rampant across states, and people swopping germs as they do-si-do in square dance festivals, are just a couple of glances offered into things falling apart.
So many scientific experts in the US government structure lost their jobs and were replaced by yes men and lightweights because they blew the necessary whistles and spoke of fixing the problem too pragmatically and too loudly. And above all, because they were the ones who made these suggestions, and not Trump himself. In Trump logic, they needed to be silenced while he grinned to the word and said everything was under control. Totally.
It’s a tale of harrowing juvenile one-upmanship and monumental instances in which the pandemic ball was not only dropped but madly thrown into wanton destruction, resulting in untold damage. Gibney weaves together astonishing footage, including material which films young interns who were conned into working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to break the non-disclosure agreements they were forced to sign and explain the horror of incompetence with which they were confronted. Trump’s henchmen and relatives come out looking abysmal, irresponsible and pathetic.
There are no happy spins to this detailed piece of research about the monumental series of blinding blunders made by people with immense authority, and it is open-ended, because we’re still moored in this saga, but there is a moment of documentary gold in which American physician and diplomat Deborah Birx, who served as the United States Global Aids Coordinator for former President Barack Obama and Trump since 2014 evades a question from the media, elegantly.
As a filmic work, it is one of the stories that will be heard about this pandemic often in the years to come. Constructed like a thriller, with the same level of dramatic slickness that you may have seen in Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s Influence, Totally Under Control candidly recounts an important story which is as much about the way in which this virus has stumped everyone, as it is about the highest level of criminally irresponsible political machinations and fumblings in the world in which we live.
Totally Under Control is written by Alex Gibney and produced and directed by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. Edited by Lindy Jankura and Alex Keipper, it features cinematography by Ben Bloodwell and music by Peter Nashel. It was released today on Apple iTunes in South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom and will be accessible in the United States on Hulu.