Alex Gibney has made his career crafting documentaries that give narrative shape to the stories that guide our lives. His work on Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Zer0Days and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room are all as revelatory as they are engaging. Totally Under Control, his documentary about the Trump administration’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was finished the day before Donald Trump announced he had tested positive for the virus. I viewed and reviewed it a week later. Is it possible to document a subject while the event is still occurring? How does a filmmaker find the shape of something without the ending?
Truly, were this another situation, those questions might linger in the head more after viewing Control. What this film offers is less a contextualization of a broad and little understood subject and more simply a chronicle of the world-historic failure of a President and his men who decided murdering hundreds of thousands of Americans was in their political best interests. This is not how Gibney views the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s frankly difficult to have witnessed the events of the film first-hand as a citizen of the world — and then the documentary interviews with since-ostracized federal employees who tried to change the administration’s course — without coming to that conclusion.
As we approach the 2020 election — and face the possibility that perhaps not even this is enough to destroy Trump and the Republican Party’s political futures — it’s worth considering the value of a movie like Control. The torrent of lies and misinformation from the party is incredible, and its desire to shift blame and change the past will only increase as bodies continue to pile up and their own failures start to claim members of their own clan. Herman Cain, we hardly knew ye. Sorry you weren’t white. Wait until one of their friends with the right color skin bites it.
My editorializing aside, Gibney goes to great lengths to emphasize the difficulty inherent in interviewing subjects during the pandemic. Each interview segment captures the safety equipment and barriers that are now necessary when talking face to face with someone outside of your household, used here simply to gather high-quality interview footage. Could these conversations be conducted via an internet video service? Yes. Is the fact we’re asking that question just a sign of how far things have gone culturally? That’s Gibney’s point.
If you’ve paid any attention to the ongoing saga of the pitiful American response to the pandemic, most of Control won’t be news to you. We knew about COVID-19 in January; people I knew in my Carmel, Indiana office were making jokes about it, putting up cheeky signs in the restrooms, etc. Certainly Trump knew about it and its deadly capacities. We know that for a fact, thanks to recordings over which he continues to shout lies. Gibney includes those, of course, just as he includes the multiple instances of Trump and his cronies rendering the entire situation worse.
Nothing about Control will make you angrier than you already should be. But if you’re not angry enough to go vote for every Democrat you can, maybe you need to watch it right now for a quick refresher of how deeply fucked we’ll be if we continue letting Republicans run our health and safety into the ground for no good goddamn reason. How could you be so stupid?