Totally

‘Totally Under Control’ review: New Alex Gibney documentary offers an incisive and infuriating critique of the Trump administration’s inept coronavirus response.

And now, he brings us “Totally Under Control,” an incisive, lucid and infuriating critique of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that Gibney co-directed with Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger. In the old days of film stock and editing room, we’d say that this timely narrative has arrived “dripping wet.” Indeed, this is such an up-to-the-minute account that the filmmakers were able to add a dismally ironic postscript that, just a day after completing the movie, President Trump himself would be diagnosed with covid-19.

Obeying the meticulous, metronomic rhythms of a classic procedural, “Totally Under Control” takes viewers back to what seems like another age, when a mysterious flu in Wuhan, China, was ravaging that community. Starting with the first known case in Washington state, the pandemic arrives on U.S. shores, and the misjudgments, missed opportunities and scrambled responses begin. Tests are hurriedly prepared but prove faulty, and an easy fix is inexplicably overlooked; the federal government pits states against each other in an obscene bidding war for badly-needed supplies; American citizens are given confusing and contradictory messages about the severity of the disease and the most appropriate ways to fight it; tough lessons learned by the previous administration, which battled its own outbreaks, are abandoned in favor of an ad hoc, often incoherent, reinvention of myriad wheels.

Meanwhile, the fatalities pile up. In addition to creating a concise, tonally understated compendium of damning facts and figures, “Totally Under Control” provides a useful comparison with South Korea, which the filmmakers present in side-by-side scenes: In the United States, people come to blows over whether to wear masks while in Seoul, a rapid-response testing and tracing program keeps outbreaks to a minimum and a complete economic shutdown at bay.

To anyone who has followed the news of the pandemic,

‘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