Arts documentary review

Totally not under control

‘Totally Under Control’ brilliantly exposes why COVID-19 is not under control in the US

Totally Under Control
Directed by Alex Gibney
Screenplay by Alex Gibney
Not Rated, Streaming on Hulu

In case you wanted to relive 2020, Totally Under Control is the documentary for you. All joking aside, director Alex Gibney’s most recent documentary is a must-watch, both because of the importance of the subject matter and because of the masterful filmmaking. As with all good documentaries, Totally Under Control is well researched and slickly incorporates interviews with informative graphics. What makes it stand out is its ability to pull you in and its incredible timeliness; it was filmed amidst the pandemic and released in October, less than a year after the events it describes.

As a warning, watching Totally Under Control is not necessarily a pleasant experience. You’ll feel the urge to scream at your screen as Gibney leads you through all the ways the United States bungled its response to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, you’ll feel the urge to scream at one person in particular: Donald Trump. Yet for some reason, you can’t look away.

This isn’t to say that Totally Under Control is flawless. In a sense, its limits are a reflection of the very problems it exposes. Put simply, two hours is far from enough to meticulously cover every failure in this pandemic because there are so many. In particular, Gibney chooses to focus on the Trump administration’s negligence and lies. It’s an effective choice, but the sheer magnitude of blunders and falsehoods means that other issues are only allotted a few minutes. Multiple topics that could easily use their own documentary — the economic fallout and the intersection between systemic racism and patient outcomes, for example — are almost glossed over.

Additionally, although the timeliness of the film is necessary to hold the Trump administration accountable, a documentary released last October cannot encompass a pandemic that is still raging. Admittedly, this may be unfair criticism: Totally Under Control is not meant to be the definitive documentary on every single thing that went wrong (and continues to go wrong) in the COVID-19 pandemic. If anything, Totally Under Control is incredibly self-aware, almost frustratingly so; the film starts by showing their creative, COVID-safe camera setup and ends by mentioning that the day after the film was completed, Trump tested positive for COVID-19. There’s no pretending that the crisis is behind us. Rather, there’s a constant sense of the ongoing tragedy and unprecedented times. Perhaps unintentionally, the slight exasperation from seeing yet another shot of their camera-box or shower curtain contraption mirrors the frustration that this is now the norm because our government failed us.

Nonetheless, Totally Under Control does almost feel like an authoritative source on the first few months of the American government’s response to COVID-19, which is a testament to its extensive interviews and Gibney’s impressive filmmaking. Indeed, despite its shortcomings, Totally Under Control may well be a film that will be shown in schools in the future, and deservedly so.