Saturday 24 October 2020

The plague: "Totally Under Control"

Here's the week's other October surprise. Rather than baking sourdough, documentary busy-bee Alex Gibney has spent lockdown assembling a team of journalists (including co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger) to help chronicle the Trump administration's murderously inept handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. Opening in the US last weekend ahead of the most life-or-death election in living memory, and debuting on UK screens big and small this week, Totally Under Control - morbidly ironic title pulled from the lips of the President himself - sets out a detailed timeline beginning in January 2020, when the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in the US, and running through to April, by which point it had become clear that politics was getting in the way of science. Thus far, this combination of idiocy, complacency, pig-headedness and outright malfeasance has resulted in 200,000 deaths and counting. (And still the President bluffs, and golfs, and dances.) Trump was the bulldozer elected to tear down a system that wasn't working as America's very rich and very poor desired; reports suggest Covid has much the same effect on the human respiratory system. At a moment when the public looked to one to protect them from the other, they instead found them working hand in unwashed hand. Gibney doesn't even need to run his timeline through to the Amy Coney Barrett announcement event that caused a localised spike last month to seal his damning case: these two hours uncover ample proof that this President is a superspreader - of germs, BS, you name it.

It's a depressing backdrop, and Gibney dutifully rounds up the footage of cardboard coffins, mass graves, and the apparently abandoned cityscapes that have become so familiar in our new dystopian normal. His editorial line could scarcely be more disheartening: time and again, we're shown how those with specialist knowledge were routinely ignored, dismissed or sidelined by the White House. Yet Totally Under Control buzzes with the thrill that comes from pursuing a story and bringing it to wider public attention: it's yet another demonstration of this filmmaker's near-unique ability to plug the spectator into the hyper-accelerated push-and-pull of the 21st century, and to transmit all the intel anyone might need to make better informed decisions at critical moments. Gibney insists that in times of crisis, we should look to the experts; so - while operating within social distancing protocols - he sits down to interview those journalists, scientists and doctors who've acted in much the same manner as the UK's Independent SAGE group. Here are people who could clearly slow and stop the spread, if they were only given the chance. (One formal tic: Gibney shoots them approaching the camera as if they'd just returned home from a hard day's work.) It's a slap in the face, then, whenever the film cuts from these informed, articulate individuals to a leader of the free world who can barely string a sentence together - but that's where we are. Barely more impressive under close scrutiny is Trump-appointed CDC chief Robert Redfield, a middle-aged mediocrity who took such great delight in tossing out the pandemic playbook prepared by the Obama administration: another borderline-criminal instance of counterevolutionary system-trashing, compounded by an abject failure to provide such basics as, say, non-faulty testing kits or an effective track-and-trace plan. (Stop me if this is getting too close to home.)

As a producer and director, Gibney has signed his name to something like two-dozen projects in the past couple of years, the vast majority of which have bolstered our understanding of the way the world now turns. Once again here, you're led to wonder how he finds the time - and how he finds the time to do this so well. The specific conditions of lockdown must have helped, but Totally Under Control casts its net staggeringly wide, rifling through broadcast news footage, public health reports, several zillion Presidential Tweets, plus old karaoke clips (you'll see why), extracts from Red Dawn and one especially inspired use of C.W. McCall's rallying "Convoy" at a point where spirits might be flagging. Given the boundless ineptitude of this regime - administration now seems too competent an expression to fit - it's a minor miracle that Gibney kept the running time down to a manageable two hours. Yet that's part of the thrill: here is a documentary that never blusters or belabours its points, that grasps there is no time to lose. So where does it leave us? Clearly, the next month - with a second wave of infection sweeping in, and an election looming that will decide America's direction of travel for the next four years - will be critical. As one of those dinosaurs raised to believe that our leaders should be worth looking up to, I've spent the past four years wondering why anyone would cast their vote for a slob like Trump. But that may well be the appeal: that a crucial percentage of his voter base are those ground down by capitalism, re-energised by the opportunity 45 presented them to say and do the dumbest, nastiest things and receive no pushback for it whatsoever. It has been America's first anti-aspirational presidency. That'll do for a one-off, toys-out-the-pram electoral tantrum, but Gibney spies how it's enabled other forms of cruelty and incompetency (anti-maskism, for one) to creep into mainstream political discourse. What he also knows, and what Totally Under Control bears out, is that in an age of stupid, one form of resistance - more crucially, a way to survive - is to get smarter. Here is one of the few films you'll see this year that may in all likelihood save lives.

Totally Under Control is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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