Out this week on Hulu, the documentary Totally Under Control begins with the question of what went wrong in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
And the film ends with a damning prosecution of the Trump administration’s failures.
The documentary is directed and produced by the credible Alex Gibney (Academy Award winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side), Ophelia Harutyunyan (producer of Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley), and Suzanne Hillinger (director of How to Fix an Election).
Using news footage and interviews, Totally Under Control aims to answer the question that the victims of COVID-19 in the U.S.—and the rest of us who have lived with the uncertainty that we might be next—deserve to know: Why did the United States fail to address a danger for which it should have been so well prepared?
Totally Under Control will be taught in universities, which I know because I am going to start teaching with it at Harvard immediately: It is a bulletproof, evidence-based reconstruction of the last ten months that shows a staggering number of heartbreaking and enraging missed opportunities to stop COVID-19.
The film begins with the haunting words “nature set loose a terrible disease,” but two hours later proves that not nature—but political choices—determined how terrible the disease would be.
Its investigation reveals four main ways the pandemic response failed:
1. Ignoring scientific advice became an act of patriotism in the Trump administration
Throughout Totally Under Control, the filmmakers juxtapose Trump’s words against expert opinion and the effect the discord had. It flashes, for instance, between images of mass graves on Hart Island in New York City and people cursing out, coughing on, and attacking grocery store workers.
Political decisions often have health consequences, and the gravest act of malpractice that this film shows is how the President politicized the wearing of masks and made no mask the new MAGA hat. There is a short line to be drawn between the President touring a mask factory without a mask, people refusing to wear them, and others harassing and attacking those who do.
Whereas South Korea was able to pinpoint superspreader events and test everyone because they knew singing and shouting in a close space spreads airborne disease particles, the Trump administration continued to encourage mask-less events.
Sure, it is shocking to learn that the United States urged manufacturers to ship to China in January and February the very masks that would soon become scarce here. But when the film shows how Trump turned some American people against scientists as a loyalty test, we are only left wondering how many people would be alive today if the sitting president did not have a disdain for science.
2. The same disease in two countries, South Korea and the United States, had two very different outcomes, indicating the spread is in the response, not the disease.
On January 20, both South Korea and the United States both reported their first confirmed case of the disease, but from there, the actions and fates of the two nations drastically diverged. Today, fewer than 500 people in South Korea have died from COVID-19 while more than 220,000 have in the United States.
The film shows that’s not simply because of a difference in size between the countries, but a difference in political will to launch a national testing program.
While South Korea moved rapidly to implement a national testing program within a week of its first case, the United States response was marked by screwed-up tests from the CDC, needless bureaucratic hurdles from the FDA that slowed down clinical labs from making their own, and the unmistakable impression that the President wanted to avoid testing to keep case counts low. (Unmistakable because the President said so, and, when officials tried to say he was joking, said so again.)
Every moment counts in a pandemic, the film reminds us, yet as South Korea solved testing problems, such as creating drive-thru testing and safety booths to protect health workers from coughing patients, Trump downplayed the virus, saying, “the risk to the American people is low.”
We know, of course, the risk was not low, and the film reminds us that the WHO distributed tests to various countries developed by the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) while Trump continued to make the false claim from which the film takes its name, that “we have it under control.”
3. The people who knew what to do were ignored, silenced, or pushed out.
The documentary makes clear that it’s not that no one knew what to do to stop the novel coronavirus, but that the Trump administration did not allow them to do it.
The film gathers evidence that the Obama administration created a playbook on pandemic response, results from a freakishly similar government simulation of an influenza pandemic emerging from China known as Crimson Contagion were released in October 2019, and top public health officials in the CDC, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs all panicked over what wasn’t being done in the face of predictable mortal danger.
When someone spoke out against the Trump administration’s “totally under control” talking point, there were consequences.
That is the inescapable conclusion of the film showing us Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, desperately telling the American public the whole truth and nothing but the truth on February 26.
To watch the footage now, it seems likely that Dr. Messonnier must have known she would risk sacrificing her career to save lives. Everything she said was correct: We did see community spread. We did need to prepare for disruption to our lives. Many did lose their jobs, others did lose income, and we did need to cancel large gatherings. But the day after her comments, the reins of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (and its message) were handed to Vice President Mike Pence.
And there were also consequences for one of the major interview subjects of the film, Dr. Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who filed a whistleblower complaint that he was reassigned for his outspokenness about the coronavirus response.
Others like Michael Bowen, a self-identified Trump voter and mask producer at Prestige Ameritech, who warned about the risk of a mask shortage, were simply ignored, even though he believed he could make 7 million N95 masks per month.
When Bowen breaks down in his congressional testimony, recalling the messages from people looking for masks, nearly crying, “I can’t help all these people,” one cannot help but wonder why we haven’t seen more tears shed from the powers that be who could’ve done something but did not.
4. Trump knew, but wanted to hide the truth.
By the time the film asks the great moral question, which had once been asked of Nixon during Watergate, What did the president know and when did he know it?, we already know the answer: He knew how bad it really was.
We know, of course, because Trump told the reporter Bob Woodward on February 7 that “it’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
And so perhaps the great question that the film leaves unanswered: with all of the overwhelming, objective, undeniable evidence…so what?
The film wraps with the question “will we be ready to fix what’s broken?” and while the rest of the documentary relentlessly digs deep and leaves no claim unsupported by evidence, the question sounds superficial and offers nothing substantial to walk away with.
The more difficult question for a film that spends two hours on how a system was broken which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and uncountable amounts of grief would have been: Is there any accountability for the people who broke it?
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