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Making a documentary that endeavors to tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic presents a litany of unique inherent challenges. To wit: the preponderance of misinformation swirling around the topic, a scope that encompasses every country on the face of the Earth, the difficulty of shooting without infecting the crew or interview subjects, a breadth of crisis felt at both the highest institutional and most intimately personal levels, and the fact that no one knows whether we’re nearing the end, at some phase of the middle, or still working through the beginning. Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger’s new film Totally Under Control sneaks in a title card stating that Donald Trump announced his positive Covid-19 test the day after the production team called a wrap on editing. By the time it gets released online next week, several major developments may have already transpired. A glaring incompleteness could not be avoided – unless, of course, the directors had waited to roll cameras until some new status quo had been reached.
Choosing to tackle this topic at such a premature stage smacks slightly of opportunism, the result of a race to get there first while everyone’s hot for coronavirus content. (Though they wouldn’t even win on that front, having already been beaten to the punch by Ai Weiwei’s generally superior CoroNation.) But the three collaborators aspire to comprehensive coverage when breaking down the segment of the narrative they’ve got to work with, and jam-pack as much information as two hours can hold. The maddening thing is that anyone who doesn’t know the majority of Gibney’s usual essay-style bullet points to begin with will probably be inclined to reject them as the same anti-Trump propaganda spewed forth from reputable media outlets, scientists and other sources of “fake news”. Maybe future generations lacking the perspective provided by the past seven months will find it edifying, though again, they’d probably prefer a report that doesn’t cut itself off before its conclusion.
The most enlightening material comes in the first half-hour and change, as the film digs in to the details of the less-covered preliminary period. Sole credited writer Gibney uses South Korea as a parallel at every juncture of the American quagmire, the prepared and responsible Gallant to the West’s reckless, self-interested, corrupt Goofus. In the early months, the Korean Center for Disease Control models the correct response in their quick, decisive action to pre-empt and pen in the virus. Across the Pacific, the Trump administration goes to great lengths to obstruct, shrink and neuter the national CDC, due seemingly to the sitting president’s attitude of contempt for science itself. Combine that with an appeal to xenophobia rooted in the idea of Covid being a Chinese issue for China to deal with, and the States fostered a terrible vulnerability that led to instant disaster.
Gibney’s script collates a large volume of developments into a cohesive timeline pitting the Trump White House against the independent agencies dedicated to keeping the public safe; the mandate to project a positive image versus the expanding inferno of reality. Access proves a most vital asset, the producers’ connections affording us a front-row seat to the cascading policy failures. Trump gives away plum contracts to underqualified companies run by his pals, and then delegates crisis response to his dead-eyed lackey Jared Kushner.
That’s where things get good, as a member of his taskforce breaks his NDA to recount his time in a Mickey Mouse operation of extraordinary incompetence. Though Max Kennedy showed up as a volunteer eager to assist the experts, he soon found that he was expected to be the expert, made a staffer on the spot despite zero experience or knowhow. Their job objectives were unclear and, in effect, unimportant. The scant handful of times he met the Fema employees he assumed would be running the joint, he realized that what he and his colleagues were doing or not doing couldn’t matter less. It was all for show.
The film’s gist rests in that hollow performance of authority, a key plank in Trump’s doctrine of going through the motions of governance while amassing private wealth and massaging his own ego. We’re shown that Korea makes it through this cataclysm largely unscathed, while the death toll continues to rise on the other side of the world. Gibney and Co posit the president’s vain mismanagement as the differentiating factor, hardly a revelation even when presented with more infuriating immediacy than newsprint can manage. All said, there are less educational ways to raise your blood pressure for two hours, and the masochistic Twitter-refreshers nourishing themselves with a steady drip of maddening headlines will have plenty to fume over. Starting with the sniggering title, this torturous rehashing of yesterday’s history all seems to be for them.
Source: The Guardian
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