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The COVID-19 Documentary All Americans Need to See

The Atlantic

By Shirley Li

Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic, it may seem senseless to make a two-hour film that looks back on how the coronavirus ran rampant in the U.S. And yet, Totally Under Control—from the Oscar-winning writer-director Alex Gibney and his co-directors, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger—not only documents the chaos of 2020 with clear-eyed precision, but also successfully argues for its own existence.

Filmed in secret over five months, Totally Under Control (streaming on Hulu) uses news footage and interviews with experts and government whistleblowers to show how the administration missed each opportunity to either stop the virus from arriving in the U.S. or prevent its spread. The filmmakers present these events in rapid, blow-by-blow succession, lending the doc an urgency that contrasts with the languid federal response to the pandemic. The result is a film that—unlike 76 Days, the moving and intimate documentary on the lockdown in Wuhan, China, made without talking heads—feels shocking to watch in retrospect for its crisp frankness. Viewers may have grown numb to the constant churn of distressing news and learned to stomach the administration’s failure to contain the virus. But Totally Under Control refuses to look away, and being reminded of how many warnings went unheeded is unnerving.

I forgot, for instance, that in February and March, cruise ships that couldn’t dock had been petri dishes that carried infected Americans while the administration dismissed the virus’s threat. I forgot that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once discouraged the general public from wearing masks, because health-care workers needed the limited supply. I also forgot that Nancy Messonnier, of the CDC, warnedat the end of February that the virus would spread in the U.S., and days later, she stopped appearing in the White House’s briefings.

If Totally Under Control simply presented all of these facts as events on a timeline, it would have come off as a brutal but rote history lesson. Instead, Gibney and his co-directors make the scope of America’s failures clear by comparing America’s response with that of South Korea. The two first-world countries found their first cases on the same day in January, but only one managed to avoid shutdowns and an economic free fall. In a rather wistful interview, the South Korean doctor Kim Jin Yong speaks candidly about how much he admired America and the CDC. He points out that 90 percent of the medical textbooks in South Korea are American, and that America has paved the way for medical advances, including inventing the N95 face mask in the 1990s. So watching America flounder has been, he says bluntly, “so sad.” Read More.