Totally Under Control: Gibney’s COVID-19 Docu

Documentarian Alex Gibney has taken on Wall Street with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Scientology with Going Clear, and the Afghanistan war with Taxi to the Dark Side, for which he won the Best Documentary Oscar.

Shooting a documentary during pandemic is extremely difficult. Cinematographer Ben Bloodwell came up with the “COVID cam” concept, which consisted of a computer, a DSLR camera, and a microphone. This remotely controlled apparatus allowed Gibney to interview the subjects of this doc with minimum contact.

The filmmaker talks about how losing a friend to COVID and having another one on a ventilator inspired him to take on the project. “It struck me that the federal response was terrible,” he says. “It was important to do a film about that. And also important, that if one was to do that film, to have the film come out prior to the election so it would be a reckoning of the response and hold the president to account.”

With co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger (brought on for their skill and to help Gibney meet the important deadline of October 13th (before the national election), the film provides in-depth look at how the US government, specifically Donald J. Trump and his administration, (mis)handled the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the early months of the pandemic.

The filmmakers conducted about 30 interviews with government officials and experts, but they requested around 100, including President Trump and his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. “The Trump administration, they didn’t ultimately give us any access. They didn’t say ‘No,’ they just ran out the clock.”

They also spoke to many people “off the record,” including public health officials and people inside the CDC. “We particularly tried to get people to talk to us at the CDC. They were the ones who told us how dangerous it was for them because the administration was monitoring their phones and emails.

The breakthrough moment was securing interviews with whistleblower Rick Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and Max Kennedy, a former volunteer who tried to secure PPE for first-responders. “It was jaw-dropping seeing how utterly incompetent–worse than incompetent–because incompetent conveys this idea that they just didn’t do a good job. This was a task force that was almost intentionally destroying the very task force that they created. We could have made a whole film about that.”

Gibney says: “the hardest day from a documentary perspective is when we had a cut, that was about two and a half hours long, and it didn’t include the “final act,” and we only had about three or four weeks left.”

When vet journalist Bob Woodward revealed his February 7 conversations with Trump, exposing that the president knew how deadly the virus was, Gibney knew he had to include it, but the question was where? His experience allowed him, along with his co-directors, to try versions with the chronological sequence of events, or using it at the end to show how we got there. They found a sweet spot in the middle that adds to the film’s emotional impact.

He takes his responsibility seriously. “When I make a film like this, it’s very difficult for me to sleep soundly because I take problems to bed with me.” In a cinematic twist of irony, he says the night he locked the picture and scheduled the release of their first trailer (the next morning), was his first night of peaceful sleep in a long time. That same morning Gibney received a call that Trump had tested positive for the coronavirus. The co-filmmakers ultimately decided to acknowledge it as part of the film at the end.

When asked who is tougher, the Trump administration or the Church of Scientology, Gibney jokingly shares, “I got more cards and letters from the Church of Scientology. One is creepier, and one is far more dangerous.”

“This is a crisis that didn’t have to happen. These were deaths that didn’t have to happen. These deaths were in some ways intentional by virtue of political expediency, and that was really the most terrifying thing. So if you’re thinking about what’s dangerous, that’s pretty dangerous. Two hundred thousand plus people die because of political calculation.”

Totally Under Control is distributed by Neon and is available for streaming on Hulu.