It was the PPE task force staffed by unpaid interns in their 20s that finally had me yelling at the screen.
They show up about two-thirds of the way into “Totally Under Control,” a documentary recap of the US coronavirus disaster to date. One of their number, Max Kennedy, tells the filmmakers how under Jared Kushner’s oversight, he and others were put in a windowless room with TVs playing Fox News and told to buy enough masks to make the entire country safe. They had to use their own laptops and Gmail addresses and, because they had no idea how government procurement works, started out by contacting their college friends.
These kids weren’t working for the task force. They were the task force. "In the entire time I was a volunteer,” says Kennedy, “our team did not purchase a single mask.”
“Totally Under Control” comes to us from the tireless documentarian Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side”), here collaborating with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. You can watch it on demand or via a virtual screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which will be hosting a filmmaker Q&A on Oct. 14.
The movie is enraging, necessary, and above all, useful. The year of our dark lord 2020 has brought so many daily outrages that it has become easy to lose sight of the big picture; exhausted by each new revelation of incompetence and denial, we fall off the back of the truck and let the news roll on without us. By simply reconnecting the dots and reminding us of exactly where failure lies, a movie like this is valuable.
Where failure lies, says “Totally Under Control,” is with Donald Trump’s White House. Structured as a straightforward chronology — what the news business calls a tick-tock — the film starts in January of this year, as rumors of a “Wuhan pneumonia” started moving through epidemiological and public health circles. It’s a little shocking how long ago that seems yet how quickly the situation deteriorated: The first US case, in Seattle, appeared on Jan. 20; a day or two later, the president told a reporter at Davos “We have it under control.”
That was nonsense, of course. Created during previous administrations, a playbook called “Crimson Contagion” specifically detailed how to combat just this sort of pandemic; it was ignored. Using an enclosed camera set-up wryly dubbed a “COVID-cam,” the filmmakers interview a series of on-the-ground experts about what went wrong, when, and because of whom. Dr. Rick Bright, the former head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which handles procurement, talks of a Trump political appointee cutting a program to manufacture N95 masks with the comment “I just don’t see a sense of urgency.”
What becomes palpably clear watching “Totally Under Control” is that a bureaucracy already stacked against rapid response was made infinitely worse by the politicization of the crisis and the gutting of the civil service by the Trump White House. We hear how an Emergency Use Authorization employed to rush out flawed test kits from the CDC then made it impossible to alter those tests so they could be used; lesson learned, Bright later used an EUA to slow down the process when the president demanded the unproven “Trump drug” hydroxychloroquine be made available to the general public.
The filmmakers paint a portrait of an administration of clueless businessmen ignoring the unignorable while the medical and public health community tried desperately to warn them in an ongoing email chain called “Red Dawn.” Mistakes compounded geometrically: The FDA halted the development of testing kits for what doctors called “a lost month” while the virus widened its spread. The CDC responded to the shortage of N95 masks by telling the populace that they really didn’t need masks. (Spoiler: They did.) Michael Bowen, a Trump voter who ran the only remaining major mask manufacturer in America, is reduced to tears as he describes his inability to get the government to take action while people lay dying in overcrowded hospitals. He ultimately tells the filmmakers the lesson he learned: “You gotta blame the manager.”
The movie makes clear that the manager, our president, knew by early February how dangerously contagious the virus was and spent the following months ordering his subordinates to downplay the threat, hide the numbers, punish perceived political enemies, and use necessary health safety precautions to inflame the country’s culture wars to the point of armed insurrection. Nearly a quarter of a million Americans are dead as a result. “Totally Under Control” puts it all together in one place — and just to underscore the magnitude of the failure, regularly cuts away to South Korea, where an all-out response kept the number of COVID-19 deaths to under 500 without a national shutdown.
We forget that history happens as we live it. “Totally Under Control” provides that history. It should be seen by every voter in every state of the union. Especially the red ones.
TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL
Directed by Alex Gibney. Written by Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger. Available on demand or via virtual screening at the Coolidge Corner. www.coolidge.org. 123 minutes. Unrated (As PG: rank governmental malfeasance).