Totally Under Control




Alex Gibney is at the peak of his powers in a riveting look at recent history.

Totally Under Control


Balanced reporting is not the aim here as is confirmed by the ironic nature of the title chosen by Alex Gibney for this outstanding documentary. The words are a quote from President Trump when he was talking about Covid-19 and claiming that he had everything sorted. Totally Under Control is a film that sets out to nail him by showing in detail - and in carefully researched factual detail at that - just how wide of the mark that statement was. At the same time Gibney is revealing the extent to which Trump's actions allowed the virus to bring America into a crisis as extreme as that which now exists.


Gibney is, of course, one of American cinema's most lauded documentarians and he has been prolific for fifteen years or more. Previous subjects have included WikiLeaks (2013's We Steal Secrets), scientology (Going Clear, 2015) and abuse in the Catholic Church (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, made in 2012). This past experience with all that it involved in researching complex subject matter and presenting it clearly has aided him in making Totally Under Control so effective. Never does it cease to hold us in its grip despite having a running time of over two hours. It is, of course, right to acknowledge that not everyone will necessarily feel the same since what has been happening in America over the past months has created so many headlines that some viewers might claim that much of what is revealed here is simply old news. That is especially possible if they are Americans who have been responding on a daily basis to every fresh news event. But for those whose awareness is more generalised and less fully detailed, this film will not be short of jaw-dropping disclosures.


The making of Totally Under Control was affected by the very circumstances on which it was reporting in that some interview material was shot due to Covid-19 in a special remotely operated manner and, while Gibney shares the directorial credit with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, their collaboration had to be realised at a certain distance. However, whatever the conditions imposed they have not caused the film to suffer as a result. Admittedly it is the case that what we see on screen is not especially cinematic (it looks as much at home when viewed on a TV screen), but the film has been assembled in a way that is masterly. Non-Americans may well be pleased to find that it takes care to avoid any confusion by identifying clearly the nature of such bodies as the CDC (the nation's public health institute) and the FDA (the federal agency covering Food and Drug Administration) and usefully it goes back to the start of the year to describe events chronologically. It would obviously be impractical to consider the world situation in a single film in which detail is important, but it proves both apt and revealing to feature alongside America the history of the virus in one additional country, South Korea. This emphasises the contrast between their approach and that in America. Nevertheless, the most telling sections here are those that lay bare the incompetence in the USA. One outstanding example is the testimony of Max Kennedy Jr, who volunteered to assist in the White House supply chain task force nominally headed by Jared Kushner. Instead of this body being an effective supplier of personal protective equipment, it proved to lack any real leadership and to be so inadequately handled that Kennedy felt compelled to speak out, albeit that this was in breach of a nondisclosure agreement imposed despite the fact that no security issue was linked to this work.


I have to admit that Totally Under Control does come with a rather undistinguished music score and there is to my mind one brief misjudgment of tone when a sequence lightly references the 1978 film Convoy and the hit song of that title. But for the rest the control and the shaping of the material are exemplary and Gibney knows how to provide a climax when he stresses the importance of a key question, namely when did Donald Trump really know just how serious the threat of the pandemic was. He plays this card in its correct chronological moment (i.e. in September 2020), that being the time when the evidence of what Trump had said about the seriousness of the situation became known for the very first time even though the admission had occurred way back in February. The clarity of this film, the range and power of the testimony it offers (much of it from doctors) and the passion behind it ensure that it hits the bullseye.




Featuring  Rick Bright, Taison Bell, Michael Bowen, Beth Cameron, Max Kennedy Jr, Eva Lee, Thomas Frieden, Victoria Kim, Caroline Chen, Vladimir Zelenko, Scott Becker, Alex Greninger, Francis Riedo.


Dir Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Pro Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Screenplay Alex Gibney, Ph Ben Bloodwell, Ed Alex Keipper and Lindy Jankura, Music Brian Deming and Peter Nashel.


Jigsaw Productions/Participant/Yellow Bear Films/Play/Action Pictures-Altitude Film Distribution.
123 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 23 October 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12.