Review: ‘Totally Under Control,’ starring Rick Bright, Kathleen Sebelius, Michael Bowen, Scott Becker, Eva Lee, Taison Bell and Max Kennedy Jr.

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Doctors treating COVID-19 patients in a scene from “Totally Under Control” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Totally Under Control”

Directed by Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan

Culture Representation: The documentary “Totally Under Control” features a predominantly white group (with a few Asians and one African American) of scientists, medical professionals, journalists and bureaucrats discussing how the U.S. government handled the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic in the first several months of the pandemic.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Donald Trump’s Republican administration, allies and other supporters frequently contradicted and ignored the advice and warnings of scientists on how to prevent the spread of the virus.

Culture Audience: “Totally Under Control” will appeal to primarily to people who want a closer look at what has already been reported in the media about the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Drive-by COVID-19 testing in a scene from “Totally Under Control” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

It’s clear from watching “Totally Under Control” that the title is a sarcastic reference to Donald Trump and his presidential administration’s “we’ve got this under control” initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 virus was first discovered in late 2019 (with origins in Wuhan, China), but it wasn’t until 2020 that the virus spread to the point it has infected and devastated millions of people around the world. It should come as no surprise that the documentary’s overwhelming conclusions are that, contrary to the movie’s title, things got out of control very quickly, and the impact will be felt for years to come.

Directed by Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, “Totally Under Control” is a documentary that feels urgent in its message but also prone to being outdated within a short period of time because the pandemic is an ever-evolving situation. Even though “Totally Under Control” will be rendered obsolete a lot quicker than other documentaries because of rapidly developing news stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie is best viewed as a time capsule for what went wrong in the first crucial months of the pandemic.

Written and narrated by Gibney, “Totally Under Control” was filmed using social-distancing guidelines: Many of the interviewees were interviewed remotely with video cameras that the filmmakers sent to them. Others who were interviewed in person were placed far-enough apart from the film crew, with plastic shielding separating people and equipment. This social-distancing is seen and mentioned in the movie.

Because there have already been copious amounts of news coverage about the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the information in “Totally Under Control” will not surprise people who have been closely following the news. But for everyone else, the documentary is sure to be an eye-opener in many ways, beginning with how much scientists and politicians in the United States knew about how to respond to a pandemic scenario, but U.S. government leaders were ill-prepared anyway.

It’s mentioned at the end of “Totally Under Control” that officials from the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS or HHS) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the institutions that get the most criticism in the movie—declined to be interviewed or provide commentary for this documentary. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, is not interviewed in the documentary either. However, the documentary points out that Fauci is one of the U.S. government’s few high-profile advisers in the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic who has actual medical/scientific experience, since most of Trump’s appointees who are advising him on the pandemic are people with backgrounds in business or law.

Even though “Totally Under Control” doesn’t have interviews with the highest level of U.S. government officials involved in the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the movie still has a good cross-section of interviewees. They include:

  • Scott Becker, CEO of the Association of Public Health Laboratories
  • Dr. Taison Bell, COVID ICU Director at the University of Virginia Medical Center
  • Michael Bowen, executive vice president of Prestige Ameritech
  • Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA)
  • Beth Cameron, former senior director for global health security and biodefense on the National Security Council
  • Caroline Chen, ProPublica health care reporter
  • Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC
  • Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the University of Washington’s Clinical Virology Lab
  • Dr. Kim Jin Yong, infectious disease doctor at Incheon Medical Center (South Korea)
  • Max Kennedy Jr., former White House COVID-19 supply-chain volunteer
  • Victoria Kim, Seoul correspondent for Los Angeles Times,
  • Dr. James Lawler, infectious disease specialist at University of Nebraska Medical Center
  • Dr. Eva Lee, infectious disease specialist at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology)
  • Dr. Francis Riedo, medical director of infection control and prevention at Evergreen Health (Seattle)
  • Kathleen Sebelius, former secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Michael Shear, White House correspondent for The New York Times
  • Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, family medicine doctor

Bright, who is one of the star whistleblowers in the documentary, says that there is “absolutely a playbook on how to deal with a pandemic.” It’s called the Crimson Contagion, a report that was distributed to the highest levels of U.S. government in 2019, after a series of mock pandemic drills and studies were conducted in 12 states. Bright comments on the major takeaway from these studies: “The challenge has always been ‘Who’s in charge?'” The success or failure of responding to a pandemic can be found in answering that question.

It’s a question that sounds easy to answer. But in the chaos that followed after the first reported COVID-19 patient in the United States in January 2020, it became sadly clear that no one really wanted to take charge of the problem. Before the United States was largely shut down in mid-March 2020, Trump and other officials in his administration were downplaying the spreading outbreak to the media. The documentary repeatedly holds up South Korea as an example of a country that did things correctly in containing the pandemic, by having mandatory testing, quarantines and mask wearing on a national level until the pandemic was under control in the country’s borders.

Bright says that behind the scenes, HHS assistant secretary Robert Kadlec rebuffed Bright’s request to form a disaster leadership group. And when Bright said in a meeting with HHS secretary Alex Azar that an approximate $10 billion would be needed to for the U.S. government to properly deal with a pandemic in the United States, Bright was told later by people in the meeting that this request greatly angered Azar and other officials who thought the projected cost was outrageously high.

The documentary doesn’t hesitate to make Azar and Kadlec (who are Trump appointees) two of the biggest villains in the coronavirus pandemic’s devastation of the United States. It’s noted in the movie that during his tenure, Kadlec cut spending on research for infectious diseases and eliminated a program that manufactured N-95 masks, which are crucial personal protective equipment for medical workers in the fight against highly contagious diseases like COVID-19.

And the documentary says there’s more blame to go around, besides blaming the obvious people at the top: Trump and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump placed in charge of a national coronavirus task force. John Bolton (former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), who was ousted by Trump in September 2019, is also blamed for eliminating a global health security team that could’ve helped the U.S. respond better to the pandemic. And the documentary also blames Trump adviser (and Trump son-in-law) Jared Kushner, who formed his own COVID-19 task force, called the White House COVID-19 Supply Chain.

Several media reports have exposed Kushner’s task force as inept and comprised of mostly inexperienced volunteers in their 20s who received little to no training on what do. Volunteers on this task force have told the media that they were forced to get into bidding wars for PPE supplies, without being told important details, such as how high they could bid or how payment transactions would be completed. “Totally Under Control” confirms those reports about the Kushner-led task force, mainly through whistleblower Max Kennedy Jr., a former volunteer on this task force and a grandson of Robert F. Kennedy.

In the documentary, Kennedy describes in the documentary that volunteers were left to fend for themselves and figure out who to call for COVID-19 supply assistance. He also claims that Kushner and other task-force supervisors never delivered on promises, and the volunteers had to sign nondisclosure agreements (NDAs). Kennedy acknowledges that he’s breaking the NDA agreement by being interviewed for this documentary. But considering that he comes from a wealthy and powerful political family, it’s doubtful he’ll face any legal consequences.

Kennedy claims that he wanted to volunteer for Kushner’s nonpartisan task force to help any way he could. However, critics could easily accuse Kennedy of having a political agenda and being a “mole” for the Democrats by being on this task force, because the Kennedys are the most famous Democratic family in the United States. The documentary could have used more input from another person on that task force (someone not associated with a political family that’s famously opposed to Republicans), even if it that person or person didn’t want to be interviewed on camera.

Ameritech’s Bowen, who says he voted for Trump in 2016, comments that a big problem was that most mask manufacturers that were in the United States eventually left to do business in countries outside the United States. And so, when the pandemic happened and there was a shortage of masks, the U.S. was woefully unprepared and had to spend an untold higher amount of money for masks to be imported from other countries.

The American divide between political conservatives (who are usually Republicans) and political liberals (who are usually Democrats) has been the fuel behind the firestorm over requirements to wear masks during the pandemic. The documentary points out that during the pandemic, the U.S. was the only major industrial country in the world to have such a political response to wearing masks. “Totally Under Control” doesn’t reveal much that’s new, except to side with the scientists, who believe that wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands frequently and getting tested for COVID-19 are the best known ways to prevent the spread of the virus until a vaccine is found.

The documentary also has plenty of criticism for the Trump administration’s decision to let state governments create their own COVID-19 policies, compared to having a national policy that was effective for other countries that were able to contain and decrease the spread of COVID-19 within their borders. In American, state governments got into bidding wars over PPEs and testing equipment. The Trump administration feuded with state governors (almost always Democratic governors) who openly criticized Trump and his administration. These governors then accused the Trump administration of deliberately withholding federal disaster funding for their states for political reasons.

But even the U.S. system of testing failed on many levels in the first few months of the pandemic. The documentary details how the CDC had sent out flawed test kits that created a “total nightmare,” says Becker, who adds: “It was like we were flying blind, and we knew it.”

Becker, Bright and others interviewed in the film sometimes get emotional when they think about all the time wasted trying to get U.S. government approval for things that should have been quickly approved if the pandemic had been taken more seriously earlier than it was. Bright says about the shortage of N95 respirators: “I sounded the alarm every day,” but he says he was mostly ignored by the Trump administration and Trump appointees until it was too late.

And about that vaccine. The documentary mentions that one of the biggest problems is all the contradictory claims about when a vaccine is expected to be available. There’s also a lot of misinformation about what drugs work the best on COVID-19 patients. The controversial drug hydroxychloroquine, which was touted and endorsed by Trump, is inevitably mentioned as an example of a drug that has not been scientifically proven to get rid of COVID-19 in a patient, even though some people claim that it does.

One of those people is Zelenko—an ardent Trump supporter who practices medicine in Monroe, New York—and who says that hydroxychloroquine has worked on several of his COVID-19 patients, even though Zelenko admits he has no scientific proof or studies to back up that claim. None of these supposed “miracle patients” is interviewed in “Totally Under Control.” In the documentary, Zelenko seems more concerned about bragging how he was able to get the attention of Trump quickly through social media than about discussing the urgent medical issues related to COVID-19.

In his interview, Zelenko says that the day after he made a YouTube video about hydroxychloroquine, he was contacted by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and that led to Zelenko’s first meeting with Trump. Zelenko also seems very impressed with himself that he was able to go from being a self-described obscure doctor with a small family practice into the upper echelons of Trump medical advisers about COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Bright (who was BARDA director from 2016 to 2020) says in his “Totally Under Control” interview that his breaking point with the Trump administration was when he got email messages from several U.S. government officials—including HHS secretary Kadlec, HHS assistant director Brett Giroir and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Pete Gaynor—pressuring Bright to push hydroxychloroquine into as many U.S. pharmacies as possible, even though the drug had not been approved by the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

Bright says that he refused to go along with that plan, and he was soon removed from his BARDA position. And when he filed a whistleblower complaint and later testified in a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in May 2020, Bright was vilified by the Trump administration as a disgruntled former employee. Meanwhile, even with a vaccine, it remains to be seen how the spread of the COVID-19 virus can be contained and decreased in the U.S. when many people in the U.S. are divided over what should be required by the government and how the government should enforce those requirements in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Toward the end of the documentary, Sebelius (who was HHS secretary from 2009 to 2014) comments on the billions of dollars that the U.S. spends on military defense equipment and training: “We have to take health security as seriously as we take defense security.” The one question that the documentary won’t be able to answer is what future American leaders will learn from the mistakes that were made during the COVID-19 crisis and how prepared the United States will be the next time there is a rapidly spreading, deadly pandemic.

Neon released “Totally Under Control” on digital and VOD on October 13, 2020. The movie will premiere on Hulu on October 20, 2020.