Why did the United States fail so miserably when it came to combating the coronavirus? The easy answer is that our President is a selfish moron, and the fish rots from the head. But that doesn’t really encompass the complete and utter breakdown that has led to over 200,000 dead Americans. Directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger explore exactly what went wrong with their new documentary Totally Under Control, and while you may be familiar with the larger beats—broken tests, absence of leadership, etc.—the documentary is an infuriating education on how a powerful nation like the U.S. was laid low while other nations were able to act swiftly and decisively. Some may say there’s no value in looking back, but the people responsible for this catastrophe are up for reelection in less than a month, and they would hate it if you knew why they were accountable.
Although we’ve been suffering from this pandemic for pretty much all of 2020, Totally Under Control focuses primarily on January 20, 2020 through April 2020. On January 20th, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. as well as South Korea. The documentary explains why South Korea succeeded while the U.S. encountered disaster after disaster. In just three short months, the most crucial time period in combating the spread of the virus, the U.S. had bungled the distribution of tests, picked the worst people to respond to the crisis, failed to ramp up the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), pitted states against each other and the federal government, pushed the bogus hydroxychloroquine “cure”, and screwed up the supply chain.
Watching Totally Under Control, you’re struck by how relatively dry it is. It doesn’t have the sexiness of conspiracy thrillers and since it’s being distributed by NEON, it’s not going to get passed around on social media as people look to get to “the truth.” As the documentary shows, the truth isn’t that sexy. It’s tragic and infuriating, but these things unfolded because we elected an administration that wasn’t remotely interested in solving problems. Yes, it’s easy to lay all the blame at the feet of Trump, but that would overlook the incompetence and failure of people like Alex Azar, Robert Redfield, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Jared Kushner. When you fill your administration with people who don’t care about science or who care about their political agenda more than public health, we shouldn’t be surprised when they’re overwhelmed by a public health crisis.
Totally Under Control isn’t a shocking experience—the biggest revelation is the Airbridge program, which was basically the Trump administration colluding with private businesses to jack up the price of PPE so those businesses could thrive while state budgets withered trying to get PPE for their citizens. But when you see all of the incompetence laid out on a simple timeline, you can’t help but see how our current crisis was avoidable. Yes, there are larger issues at play like the failure of the free market and how Republican politicians are completely ill-equipped to lead (the documentary studiously avoids calling out the GOP specifically, instead criticizing “politics”, but there’s no point in avoiding a polemic in a polarized country), but the directors choose to keep the focus on this crisis rather than the larger systemic issues like toxic American individualism or our intense polarization so that even wearing a mask becomes a political issue.
Some may wonder who Totally Under Control is for, but I think it’s good that this documentary exists if for no other reason than it recaps a catastrophe. February to April 2020 feels like an eternity ago in our fast-paced news cycle, so it’s good to lay out exactly what happened and how we got here. There are specific people to blame, and while no one is claiming that we could have had zero COVID-19 deaths, the evidence is undeniable that tens of thousands of Americans are dead because of our government’s failure. This is not a thing that just “happened.” It was caused, and when we take our politics as nothing more than a game, this is the outcome.
Totally Under Control is on VOD on October 13th and on Hulu on October 20th.