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How can anyone sit down to watch Totally Under Control in October 2020 and expect to learn anything new?

I started watching Alex Gibney’s new documentary about the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic just as the Oct. 12 Senate confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett got underway. While my Twitter feed flooded over with images of maskless Republican Senator Mike Lee addressing a room full of colleagues in person less than two weeks after he tested positive for COVID-19, Gibney’s doc mapped out our year so far.

There’s been a running joke on social media for the past four years about the Trump presidency amounting to a (highly damaging) season of reality TV. Carrying that idea forward, if 2020 is pulling out all the stops ahead of a blockbuster season finale, then Totally Under Control is the clip show recap that airs just before we get to see how things end.

For a news junkie like me, it’s all familiar territory. The early months of false hope emanating from the nation’s highest office. The outrageous idea that more testing is a bad thing. The PPE shortages and politicization of masks. The mounting death toll, and the presidential bluster that refused to accept basic reality again and again.

But if the recent pre-election debates have brought us anything tangible, it’s a reminder that, somehow, somewhere, there are still undecided voters scattered across the United States. For those of you who fall into that category, Totally Under Control is a massive reality check. The facts speak for themselves.

‘Totally Under Control’ is the clip show recap that airs just before we get to see how things end.

Gibney assembled a sizable roster of journalists, political figures, experts, and Trumpworld-adjacent workers to speak in simple, clear terms about their firsthand experiences. If you didn’t know, for example, that the Trump administration shut down an offer early in the pandemic that would have given the U.S. access to millions more N95 masks each month, you can hear the story straight from Michael Bowen, the man who made the offer.

We also hear from figures like Max Kennedy, Jr., the 26-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. Max served on a task force assembled by Jared Kushner, working alongside other inexperienced young adults to procure PPE early in the pandemic. He eventually blew the whistle on what the New Yorker characterized as “dangerous incompetence” in the executive branch.

The documentary’s two-hour running time is a bit much for one sitting. It’s not for lack of details, either. If anything, Gibney’s account of 2020 is heavily abbreviated. There’s no discussion, for example, of how limited testing capabilities early on were further strained as the lack of a coherent national response created opportunity for a privileged class of Americans to access a safety measure that others could not.

But for as much as the individual months of 2020 each feel like their own, self-contained epoch, Totally Under Control is ultimately covering very familiar territory. The facts and details that do get time in the spotlight are painfully fresh, and probably even more so if COVID-19 has directly touched your life in some way.

Still an undecided voter? 'Totally Under Control' is specifically for you.


It’s a difficult movie to watch because holy crap, we’re in the thick of it all right now. There are still PPE shortfalls that threaten to become even more dire if a predicted fall surge in infections fully materializes. There’s still, bafflingly, a counterproductive public debate over the efficacy of masks. And there’s still Trump presiding over all of it, fomenting social division and talking up progress in the fight against COVID that simply isn’t happening.

It’s impossible to separate Totally Under Control from the politics of the moment. The title makes that case plainly: It’s drawn from a ridiculous-in-hindsight utterance that Trump made in a January interview when asked about how the U.S. was handling the response before case numbers had reached even triple digits.

In that sense, the documentary offers a portrait of how three years of malignant narcissism and gross incompetence from people like Trump and Kushner led to the pandemic result the American public has been forced to endure throughout 2020. It takes a side, and it emphatically states its case for that side.

But the bigger message Totally Under Control tries to carry across is that there are no sides here. There’s even a little postscript linking our pandemic response to 2020’s mountain of climate change evidence. Both are global events of enormous consequence, and response efforts to each are currently overseen by a cabal of self-interested political figures working against the public interest, repeatedly and unashamedly.

When you cast your vote this fall, these are the factors you’ll need to weigh. For those who have already made their decision, Totally Under Control is a stressful, unnecessary trip down memory lane. But if you’ve somehow gotten to 2020 without forming a complete, informed opinion of the political landscape in the U.S., carve out two hours and settle in for a crash course.

Totally Under Control is now streaming on iTunes, Google Play, and more. It begins streaming Oct. 20 on Hulu.