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Review: COVID response examined in fiery, timely 'Totally Under Control'

Doc contextualizes how we arrived at our current moment in the pandemic

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Alex Gibney and Ophelia Harutyunyan's "Totally Under Control" is, by its very nature, incomplete. While it provides an exhaustive and damning look at the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration's response to it, the public health crisis is very much still raging, and the fallout will be felt for months and likely years to come. It's a bit like a WWII documentary made a year into the war, or a recap of a baseball game filed at the top of the fourth inning. 

Which is not to say it doesn't pack a punch. Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007's "Taxi to the Dark Side," and his directing partner Harutyunyan examine the early stages of the virus, and the initial failings to take it seriously or take significant action to stop it.

President Donald Trump in a scene from "Totally Under Control."

Experts discuss the severity of the disease, the lack of testing, the flawed testing, the lack of communication between various government agencies, the blame game between various government agencies, the PPE shortage — basically, the entire dumpster fire that has been government's response to coronavirus.  

It's a sad and sobering look at how we arrived at this current moment, and it couldn't be more timely. But that timeliness is also its limitation: the film was wrapped earlier this month, clearly with the intention of a pre-election release, but very recent revelations — Trump's February comments to Bob Woodward about the virus and his own contracting of COVID-19 — are quickly tacked on to the final moments of the movie. Given the speed of our current news cycle, by election day it may be a relic. 

Yet its tight focus earmarks it as an important on-the-record document about a year we'll never forget. And, for better or for worse, it's already due for a sequel.


'Totally Under Control'


Running time: 123 minutes