By Leah Greenblatt
October 07, 2020 at 12:32 PM EDT
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Credit: Neon

How did we get here? Seven months into a global pandemic with no discernible end in sight, the first rough draft of history is still being written. But Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Enron: The Smartest Guys in Room) brings the documents, and the receipts, in Totally Under Control — a methodical, devastating account of the American government’s malfeasance and failure to act from the top down.

What’s clear almost from the outset is that it didn’t have to be this way. Shooting in secrecy over the last five months (with the help of an elaborate, plastic-shrouded setup he dubs "the COVID-cam") Gibney gathers the first-hand knowledge of dozens of government scientists and health-care officials who together construct a sort of Anatomy of a Disaster, from the earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan to the first mishandled testing units issued by the CDC. And if he leaves some moments over-editorialized and certain provocative questions unanswered, the film (available on demand Tuesday) is still, for nearly every moment of its two-plus hour runtime, frankly infuriating.

Testimonials from civilian whistleblowers turn out to be some of the movie’s most powerful: 26-year-old Max Kennedy Jr., who broke a non-disclosure agreement to reveal that Jared Kushner’s coronavirus supply chain task force was in fact made up entirely of young unpaid volunteers like himself, using personal Gmail accounts to plead and bargain with the private sector for PPE and other gear (their total haul: zero). And Mike Bowen, a Texas mask manufacturer who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and was flabbergasted by the administration's continued refusal to commission N95s and other basic equipment on a mass scale for millions of vulnerable healthcare workers who had already been cobbling together their own DIY protective gear for months.

It’s the scientists, though, and Gibney’s own deliberately paced timeline, that paint the fullest forensic portrait of what went wrong, walking through other countries’ case studies and constructing crucial points of collapse and miscommunication that let the virus reach a turning point in which a shutdown became all but inevitable. We’re well familiar by now with the outcome of all that: More than 200,000 lives lost; at least 7 million U.S. citizens infected, with unknown long-term health consequences; an economy devastated, with upwards of 100,000 small businesses and counting closed.

But knowing those facts intellectually and seeing them laid out as barely as they are here feel like two very different things. More than one participant becomes visibly emotional on camera — including Dr. Rick Bright, the federal vaccine expert who sounded early alarms, and ultimately paid for it with his post as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. As a tearful Bright testifies before Congress, pleading desperately for intervention, the movie intercuts footage of Donald Trump dismissing him as “an angry disgruntled employee, who frankly, according to some people, didn’t do a very good job.”

The point that Totally Under Control is working so furiously to make, of course, is that their jobs were exactly what hundreds if not thousands of the nation's top medical and scientific and economic minds were blocked or bullied or otherwise prevented from carrying out. The movie’s title, by the way, comes from the President’s own evaluation of his handling of the virus, a phrase he proudly repeated more than once. The day after filming was completed, it notes in a postscript, he received his own positive COVID-19 diagnosis. A–

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