“In a moment of crisis, the world’s most powerful nation didn’t rise to the occasion, it descended into division and chaos.”
This quote, from the early moments of Alex Gibney’s riveting new documentary Totally Under Control, is a perfect summation of what the film will lay out over its enraging, soul-crushing two-hour running time. Despite warning from public health officials, infectious disease experts and even a sales representative for a company that manufactures N95 masks, the US government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was ineffective at nearly every turn — and in some cases, this appeared to be happening by design.
Filmed over the course of several months, and co-directed by Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Totally Under Control leans heavily on the use of the “COVID cam,” an interview system built off-site and delivered to subjects, allowing them to maintain social distancing guidelines while still answering questions from the filmmakers. This technique makes a subtle but powerful statement: these sort of extreme measures are only necessary because the United States is still in the throes of the pandemic.
Subjects include Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control from 2009-2017; Beth Cameron, former director for Global Health Security and Biodefense on the White House National Security Council; journalists from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times; and vaccine-expert-turned-whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Together, they paint a grim picture of the medical community being repeatedly stymied by bureaucracy, and a presidential administration more concerned with “packaging” science to meet partisan goals than formulating the sort of response necessary to contain the diseases.
Particularly maddening is the “Crimson Contagion” report, an exercise conducted in 2019 by numerous federal, state, public and private health organizations to assess whether or not the United States would have the capacity to deal with a pandemic. Delivered in October 2019, the report detailed the shortcomings and pitfalls of the current system, and made several predictions that now seem especially prescient: the US lacked the manufacturing infrastructure to meet the need for PPE and medical devices; federal agency roles were not clearly defined and would lead to confusion on the responsibilities of each organization; and states lacked a standardized system through which to request funding, supplies and other resources.
By all accounts, the Crimson Contagion report was largely ignored by the Department of Health and Human Services, leading Bright and his colleagues to watch in horror as many of the events they warned of months earlier began manifesting — all while the administration conveyed an “everything is fine” narrative in public. Totally Under Control juxtaposes this with an examination of South Korea’s response to COVID-19, and the differences couldn’t be more stark: one country made a choice to allow medical expertise to guide their hand, while another relied on the whims of an erratic leader whose chief concern seemed to be the performance of the stock market. The results speak for themselves: more than 219,000 citizens have died from COVID-19 complications in the US, while South Korea’s death toll is less than 500. The United States has approximately four percent of the world’s population, but more than 20% of the total worldwide deaths related to the pandemic.
If last year’s haunting HBO miniseries Chernobyl showcased the worst possible government response to a disaster that had already occurred, then Totally Under Control, with its clear account of the myriad ways in which the US government failed to take proactive measures to prevent a crisis, is the perfect companion piece. Gibney’s film is all but guaranteed to infuriate viewers, and rightfully so — but its revelations are also unquestionably terrifying to behold, especially when the end is still nowhere in sight.