‘Totally Under Control’: a title, definitely not a description of the White House COVID response

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. Originally scheduled for release in early November, the movie was bumped up to Oct. 13 following the news of President Trump’s COVID-19 infection. 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.

From "Totally Under Control."
From “Totally Under Control.”Neon

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

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