Esquire called Alex Gibney the most important documentary film maker of our time. Although I generally shy away from bestowing these kinds of accolades, such a case can be made for him in light of the fifty films he has made since 1980. Although many are political films like “Totally Under Control” that is available as VOD on October 13, he has also profiled James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra. “Totally Under Control” gets its title from Donald Trump’s response to a reporter on Jan. 22, who asked if there are worries about a pandemic. Trump replied: “No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s — going to be just fine.”
On practically a day-by-day basis, Gibney and co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunan show how missteps, both intentional and unintentional, have cost the lives of 214,000 and 7.71 million cases (and rising). There’s a tendency for COVID-19 denialists to focus on the deaths, often dismissing them as disproportionately falling on the elderly who after all are no longer producing profits for a boss. What’s the big deal, I’ve heard them argue, if the median age of deaths is 78? That’s the average life expectancy anyhow. But if you consider that among the 7.71 million cases, there might be at least one million Americans who have permanent damage neurologically or to their respiratory system, that’s a disaster. Since there are no ongoing statistical studies of the impact, it tends to be overlooked.
This is a very straightforward film. For the most part, it consists of scientists and physicians commenting on how we got there, with many familiar to you from appearances on CNN such as Kathleen Sebelius and Rick Bright. Others are not so familiar and give the documentary considerable weight, especially Dr. Taison Bell, the African-American COVID-19 ICU Director of the UVA Medical Center who talks about the uphill battle he had when the pandemic began as well as how the Black community suffered disproportionately.
However, the most eye-opening account comes from Max Kennedy Jr., the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy who volunteered with the COVID-19 Supply-Chain task force headed up by Jared Kushner. Despite his lack of epidemiological inexperience, having a background in consulting and investment, he and his team, who had the same minimal skills, had to track down desperately needed medical supplies. When he discovered how Kushner sought to keep government involvement to a minimum in favor of “market” solutions and saw Trump’s “totally under control” type remarks to the media, Kennedy broke his Nondisclosure Agreement and filed a whistleblower complaint to Congress about the Trump family’s malfeasance.
Even if the odds against an adequate response to the pandemic were heightened by Trump’s incompetence, there were also serious mistakes made by well-intentioned medical experts. Chief among them was the distribution of test kits that included probe sets for the specific detection of 2019-nCoV — so-called N1 and N2 assays — as well as one designed for the universal detection of SARS-like coronaviruses, called the N3 assay. Unfortunately, the N3 assay results contaminated the N1 and N2 assays; it took far too long for the CDC to put together a new test kit.
The documentary also hears from Dr. Kim Jin Yong, a Korean-American who headed the Incheon Medical Center. He is also an anthropologist who served as the 12th President of the World Bank from 2012 to 2019. You get an idea of America’s loss of prestige when you hear him state how dismayed he was by American incompetence. Despite serving on the World Bank and previously as the chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, he views the failure of the USA to even begin to match his own country’s response as symptomatic of its decay. When a citizen of a “peripheral” country feels sorry for the USA, something has changed. Big time. Yong was the architect of an aggressive five-point plan for ending the pandemic and reopening the economy. At the height of the pandemic, the United States reported 15 times more confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths than South Korea despite having about six times the population.
The film is extraordinary for being completed in what looks like record time to me. They built a special camera called the “COVID cam” that facilitated filming, while keeping to social distancing norms. Director Suzanne Hillinger explains in the press notes:
It’s basically a small camera that Ben [Bloodwell, the cinematographer] mounted onto a laptop tray with handles and then he put a laptop on it, rigged a microphone to it, and we’d have a local camera assistant drop it off on a subject’s front steps and we’d all be logged in on Zoom, so as soon as a subject opened the door, we could communicate with them to turn the camera on and our cinematographer would be able to control the camera from a different state. It was crazy. We figured out two options that we offered our subjects based on their comfort levels. We had a few do the remote COVID cam and we had a few who were willing to meet in person but we wanted to make sure we weren’t putting anyone at risk. So, you’ll see that there are shower curtains with a hole cut out so we could put the eye direct through it.
“Totally Under Control” was available as VOD on Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon, Fandango NOW, Google Play/YouTube, Vudu, and Hulu. Implicitly hoping to persuade Americans that Donald Trump does not deserve a second term, Gibney has made the film available for free through election day. Dr. Taison Bell, referred to above, has been appearing in a Biden campaign ad. It is clear that the medical profession is anxious to see Trump removed as evidenced additionally by the New England Journal of Medicine implicitly endorsing Biden. If Trump’s removal is necessary for the government to get past his sheer incompetence and bad faith, there is still a question of whether a Democratic president can address the underlying cause of the pandemic. Capitalism will continue its onslaught into rainforests across the planet, thus setting the stage for the next pandemic.
In 2010, Obama visited Indonesia, where he lived with his mother from the age of six to ten. Her second marriage was to Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student at the University of Hawaii. In a speech in Jakarta, Obama said, “Yesterday, President Yudhoyono and I announced a new Comprehensive Partnership between the United States and Indonesia. We are increasing ties between our governments in many different areas, and — just as importantly — we are increasing ties among our people. This is a partnership of equals, grounded in mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Despite Yudhoyono’s pledge to protect the rainforest, nearly six million acres were rezoned for palm oil plantations by his Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan. Among the corporations using Indonesian palm oil are Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, L’Oreal, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Unilever.
On November 22, 2019, the National Geographic reported:
In 1997, clouds of smoke hung over the rainforests of Indonesia as an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania was burned to make way for agriculture, the fires exacerbated by drought. Smothered in haze, the trees couldn’t produce fruit, leaving resident fruit bats with no other option than to fly elsewhere in search of food, carrying with them a deadly disease.
Not long after the bats settled on trees in Malaysian orchards, pigs around them started to fall sick—presumably after eating fallen fruit the bats had nibbled on—as did local pig farmers. By 1999, 265 people had developed a severe brain inflammation, and 105 had died. It was the first known emergence of Nipah virus in people, which has since caused a string of recurrent outbreaks across Southeast Asia.
I am glad that Alex Gibney made such a powerful film and that he has made it available for free but one hopes that he can begin to grasp the broader context of the pandemics that he hopes to combat with “Totally Under Control.” To really make them a thing of the past, it will be necessary to bring capitalism itself totally under control.