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Totally Under Control review – intermittently astonishing COVID doc

Alex Gibney's look at America's disastrous handling of the pandemic is studious and important, even as it peters out

After tackling Scientology, The Troubles, and Russian influence on US politics, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney turns his sights to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the ironically-titled Totally Under Control.

Gibney systematically works through the American response to Coronavirus in a day-by-day fashion, starting with the first reported US case in Seattle. It’s these early days that prove the most interesting and infuriating, Gibney uncovering details of incompetence and deliberate negligence, with early expert warnings of possible mass infection deliberately ignored by both the Trump administration and the CDC.

There’s even room for some darkly funny stories here, like the fact that Washington state had a series of super-spreader events in the form of traditional square-dances. It makes for a powerful and vital counterargument to anyone who claims critics of US pandemic response are simply using hindsight to play politics.

As Totally Under Control progresses further into the crisis, though, its ability to shock wanes. It’s hard to give out new insights about an event that everyone on earth has been zealously following for about seven months, and, given the intense nature of COVID’s autumn resurgence, there’s less of an ending to the documentary and more of a gradual petering out.

That said, this is still an important, intermittently astonishing piece of fact-finding (the NDA-breaking confessions of a volunteer in the PPE acquisition team will make your heart absolutely sink) with informative and terrifying insights from world-renowned experts.

Gibney’s conclusion doesn’t advocate for one particular strategy to deal with COVID other than to bring competence back to the White House – the kind of competence that saw countries like South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand effectively contain the pandemic. It’s an obvious, but irresistible, message.

Totally Under Control is showing in select UK cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from October 23.

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