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Film

America Is Spiralling in New Documentary ‘Totally Under Control’

The COVID-19 crisis down south, in brutal detail. The question is, can we stomach any more of this?

Dorothy Woodend 8 Oct 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of the Tyee. Reach her here.

It will be interesting to read how the history books of the future summarize this pandemical period. One can only imagine historians and academics not yet born poring over the mountain of information — dates, emails, statistics, task forces and endless media coverage — and trying to understand.

Spare some pity for those future folks, because so much of what’s happened this year makes no sense at all. But nowhere is this confounding quality more densely aggregated than in the American response to COVID-19.

The chaos is at the heart of Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger’s new documentary, Totally Under Control. Part of the mythos of the film is that it was made in secrecy over the past five months. Interviewees — a who’s who of scientists, doctors and career civil servants — were sent specially-designed cameras to film themselves dropping truth bombs.

These are calm and logical people who found themselves in the midst of a rapidly-accelerating crisis. Well-trained, experienced and rational, almost to a fault, the thing that seems to unite them all is not being able to comprehend what the hell was happening, even as it happened. No matter how long and loud they screamed about the threat of the virus, the response from government leaders was at best sluggardly, and at worst completely non-existent.

It’s little wonder that the common emotional response throughout the film is exasperation, anger and a profound confusion. How did it come to be this way? And more importantly, why?

As other critics have already indicated, the film might be a little too early to the party. The story isn’t done. Given the recent churn of events, it’s hard to hazard a guess about what will happen in the next 24 hours of the coronavirus, much less the coming weeks and months.

Totally’s narrative is strongest when it sticks to the earlier days of the outbreak. As the film makes clear, the idea of a global pandemic wasn’t an unexpected occurrence; in fact, a mock government exercise in 2019 entitled Crimson Contagion eerily predicted a lot of what actually happened in the spring of 2020. The U.S. government had a plan; it simply decided to ignore it.

While other countries like South Korea, New Zealand or Iceland acted immediately and decisively, the American response to COVID-19 in the early days of February was slow, lackadaisical and often perversely illogical.

What can this film add that hasn’t been covered in exhaustive and cogent fashion by the media already? The answer is simply more context. If you need a refresher, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong has covered much of the same ground, with precision and care.

And while it’s interesting to put faces to names in the film, there is so much detail, so many tangential routes tracing everything from Jared Kushner’s failed task force to the rise and fall of hydroxychloroquine, that after a while your brain begs for a break. Not only from the relentless march of failure and the revolving cast of characters, but from the terrible vision of what could have and should have been.

The film directs the bulk of its fury at U.S. President Donald Trump, laying the blame squarely at the feet of one person, “the manager” as it were, of a perfect shit storm.

Trump certainly bears responsibility for the state of the nation, but he had a fair amount of help from toadying sycophants along the way. Many other officials are name checked for different levels of incompetence and self-interest in the film.

What’s been consistently bewildering over the past seven months is watching a country that built its entire identity on courage, freedom and a cussed resistance to authority rendered incapable of fighting off the bully at its helm.

But the bully created turmoil within. Vaccine scientist Dr. Rick Bright, a key whistleblower, explains through tears how the government culture of repercussion and fear paralyzed people. Bright, who recently resigned from his position at the Department of Health and Human Services, was one of the few to speak out. Others who did so were summarily removed from their positions and labelled un-patriotic.

The foundational spirit of Americans, steeped in almost every aspect of culture and education, is that theirs is the greatest country on Earth. Anything that contradicts this resounding faith is ignored or worse. As one of the film’s directors puts it, “Ignoring expert advice became an act of patriotism.”

The U.S. president’s constant blandishments that provide the film its title are documented one after another. But horror fades quickly, or maybe it’s too hard to sustain a constant reaction of shock and rage to the Trumpian antics. You cannot stay in that place forever. It’s feels soul sickening and acidic. The anger simply eats away at you, until you go numb.

In light of this idea, the title of Totally Under Control takes on a different resonance, namely that without truth, freedom doesn’t mean very much. It’s an idea that keeps hitting home, whether it’s in the rage-inducing U.S. presidential debates, where the sheer number of lies starts to feel like a biblical plague of flies, or the constant low-level gaslighting that coats the mainstream news.

To be blunt, the rush to release Totally Under Control hurt its artfulness. One of the problems with this type of documentary is that there are simply so many like it. Made with good intentions and chock-a-block with information, they can start to feel formulaic. Worse still is the feeling that they’re preaching to the choir.

But despite its shortfalls, it is still important to draw precise connections and offer a well-articulated timeline of events, especially if the film can reach a mass audience, expanding out from the niche realms of festival play into more accessible platforms. It comes to Video on Demand on Tuesday and will be available to screen on Hulu on Oct. 20.  [Tyee]

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