Wednesday, April 14, 2021
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Screen Grabs: Don’t worry, he said, COVID’s ‘Totally Under Control’

A new doc parses the US pandemic response catastrophe. Plus: Driving While Black, more


Though it hasn’t killed the man himself (at least as of this writing), it does begin to look like COVID may be successfully killing the re-election campaign. Gee, who’d-a thunk that completely bungling a health crisis the administration was well-warned about, letting nearly a quarter million Americans die of it (so far), and continuing to trivialize prevention methods after getting infected himself—while seemingly dosing most of the current White House and its pals—would be the straw that is finally breaking the camel’s back? There have been so many straws, it’s hard to know if there’s still a camel under there.

Given that pre-COVID life already seems sooooo long ago in an era where the shit has flown so fast and thick, the Obama era now feels like some distant pre-war epoch, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there is already a movie about the Year That Rona Ate. Made in relative secrecy over recent months, available On Demand today from most major streaming platforms (it can also be bought or rented direct from the distributor at, Totally Under Control charts the initial path of what some already consider the worst, most avoidable boondoggle in American history. 

This is, needless to say, very, very recent history. But it’s proceeded at such a blitzkrieg pace, to such mingled resistance and disbelief (mostly at that idiotic resistance), that the documentary’s cool overview of just how we got from January 2020 to here can still jolt in its big-picture clarity. The movie doesn’t even have to cover events later than April, when the Trump administration’s scattershot, self-contradicting and disingenuous approach to a huge national crisis had already assured a disastrous outcome. 

There were a whole lot of “canaries in the coal mine” of COVID-19 from the time it was first heard of, notably the Chinese government’s own unusually severe response to what outwardly looked like just another disease bred by its dicey animal “wet markets.” Our government had constantly updated “playbooks” for dealing with such imported contagions, which had even been given practice runs to trouble-spot before a real emergency. Of course, Twitler’s administration not only “threw out” the playbook (it “came from Obama!” eww!!), but to an extent pretended they hadn’t been given one, in the first of many easily-disproven official denials of reality that coronavirus would generate. 

Totally Under Control is full of qualified public health experts (but no current administration ones—they declined to be interviewed, natch) expressing horrified amazement as the White House ignored all scientific wisdom, flat-out lied to the public, and hobbled responsible agencies like the CDC. Indeed, it shut down relevant committees and fired officials to muzzle scientifically credible responses, replacing them (if at all) with donors, toadies, and others with no applicable experience or knowledge whatsoever.

In the film’s fast-paced chronicle, nearly every Federal step reviewed is a misstep: Enforcing useless travels bans against foreigners, as if Americans themselves somehow couldn’t bring a virus home from abroad (which they did); faulty COVID test kits being mailed to public labs around the country; letting the Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies dwindle, then hoarding it, bidding against states (for whom that stockpile exists) while on-the-ground health workers were in desperate need; allowing its own criminal negligence to become another bonanza for favored private-sector merchants, in the belief that the “free market” always knows best; etc. etc. The film more or less ends with the late-April push to “open up America again,” because the administration was bored and annoyed by the emergency it hadn’t wanted to deal with in the first place. Meanwhile, we were already settling into today’s still-steady rate of about 1,000 American COVID deaths per day (or “two 9/11’s every week,” as someone puts it). 

Even at two full hours, you’ll be amazed at how much isn’t in Totally Under Control—even in the middle of the epidemic, it’s easy to imagine an engrossing ten-hour documentary miniseries about its progress so far. 

But the film retains a tight focus on policy that needs no overall editorializing to be completely damning. There is a core message here: In the US, coronavirus has not been a public health failure. Instead, it’s been a political failure to let public health experts respond to a deadly emergency. 

Recurrent contrast is made with South Korea, which was hard-hit early on. But its leaders let medical professionals determine public policy, which was well-defined and being put into practice by the end of January. Result: To date, that nation remains well short of 500 deaths total—yes, in nine months it has logged fewer than half the casualties the US racks up in a day. There are many ways to measure the delusional world of remaining Trump supporters, but probably none more stark than their continued belief that he’s “handled” COVID-19 as well as possible. Although with the US claiming 20% of the world’s cases despite having just 4% of its population, it’s clear that literally every other nation has “handled this” better. 

Totally Under Control—its title a quote that may well turn out to win this Presidency’s hotly competitive title for Defining Lie—is from Alex Gibney, who co-directed along with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. Gibney’s career kicked into high gear 15 years ago with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and alongside the occasional portrait of an artist (Sinatra, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.), his insanely prolific output has encompassed exposes on Silicon Valley (The Inventor, Steve Jobs), Putin (Citizen K), Scientology (Going Clear), WikiLeaks (We Steal Secrets), sports doping (The Armstrong Lie), economic inequality (Park Avenue), clerical sex abuse (Mea Maxima Culpa), political and military corruption, et al. 

That’s a lot of important filmmaking, but here’s hoping his latest becomes the kind of must-view that could turn a few stubborn holdouts’ votes from red to blue in a couple weeks. With Bob Woodward having revealed that Trump knew exactly how deadly and contagious COVID was in January, there’s no dismissing his actions anymore as simply inept or ignorant. This President is killing his own citizens, and it doesn’t bother him in the least. 

There are plenty of other new documentaries of pressing political relevance also worth checking out this week. Debuting on PBS Tuesday night is Dr. Gretchen Sorin and Ric Burns’ Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America, which examines the fraught issues around travel for African-Americans in our national history—and, needless to say, today, when blacks’ freedom of movement seems to be treated by some law enforcement officials as if it were 1950 again. 

Race is also a factor in Belly of the Beast, which comes out not long after the revelation that some women in ICE facilities have been subject to forced sterilizations. Erika Cohn’s film finds similar deeds taking place in California prisons, with “modern-day eugenics” pressed on the incarcerated, and whistleblowing activists trying to make the state’s Department of Corrections fess up and take action. It becomes part of the Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home’s streaming program tomorrow, Wed/14. And on the heroic rather than abhorrent side of medical science, Carolyn Jones’ In Case of Emergency spans the country to focus on ER nurses’ dealing with crises on a daily basis, from COVID to opioid addiction to the difficulties imposed by our health insurance systems. It’s also available On Demand as of tomorrow, from Kino Lorber. 

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