Thursday, July 18, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘Totally Under Control’

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Totally Under Control is the ongoing horror story of modern-day America. It attempts to put the myriad of facts of how we got here into perspective. By extension, it is also an autopsy report of the slow death of one of the richest most powerful countries in the world. 

The documentary is the latest from Alex Gibney, along with Suzanna Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan. The three attempt, and succeed, to lay out the case against the current Administration and the failure of the US government to act.

It creates a timeline starting in January and goes all the way until the announcement that the President had COVID. Funny how even though it was merely a couple of weeks ago, it feels as if it were months. But that’s life in a pandemic.

Totally Under Control is a historical record, detailing the vanity and apathy of our own government. It is required viewing for those looking to try and wrap their arms and heads around the sprawling tragedy. The documentary remains incomplete, as the failure of the United States government to combat the virus is still ongoing.

Working in secret, the filmmakers investigated one of the great bureaucratic bungles of the modern era. They invented a new type of camera system. It was built offsite and delivered to interview subjects. Dubbed the “COVID CAM”, it highlights the filmmakers’ dedication and ingenuity.

A virtual system was set up so no one person was in the same room with another. Handles on the side of the camera allowed the subject to carry and place it where necessary. The filmmaker’s commitment to safety is such that they are even refusing to release the documentary in theaters. 

Some may complain about how Totally Under Control is no more than political propaganda. It is not propaganda so much as the laying out of facts. Though in these hyperbolic times the facts are often blunted by denouncing them as propaganda.

If it seems like an attack, it is only because there are some people so allergic to the truth they will make up conspiracies to keep from having to acknowledge the desperate reality. This is investigative journalism, pure and simple. 

Totally Under Control levels blame at the CDC, FEMA, FDA, and other government institutions. It lays out the case that the Administration’s own apathetic and lethargic response had a trickle-down effect. Their inaction was costly and destructive beyond what most reasonable people would consider good-faith mistakes.

The trio interview a vast array of people to help put together a clear picture of how we failed and continue to fail. The filmmakers talk to doctors on the ground, academic experts, people who were on the inside when the wheels first started to come off, as well as other actors in the tragedy. Each one speaking with clarity and urgency as they try to put into words what happened.

If you’ve been following the news at all, some of what Totally Under Control exposes will not be news. Yet, the news about the pandemic response comes out so quickly and piles up so easily that you’re bound to learn something new. Its biggest achievement is creating a timeline and making the information seem less daunting than it surely appears.

As the documentary goes along you can see certain people begin to grow frustrated and angry at the intransigence of the bureaucracy and callousness of our leaders. Some are actual doctors who have worked with COVID-19 patients. Others are people who have been sounding the alarm for years and are now just exhausted and hollowed out.

Mike Bowen, a manufacturer of medical masks, is one of those people. Bowen is one of the few remaining manufacturers of masks and respirators. A Republican, Bowen has been sounding the alarm about the dangers of mask shortages since the Obama administration. The danger is that America doesn’t make many of its own masks. It buys them from other countries.  

Bowen tells Gibney, “I’m a salesman telling a story that nobody believes. The story is that the U.S. mask supply is going to collapse and people are going to die. It doesn’t cost much to fix. That’s the story.” 

He, along with a handful of others, warned that if there was some sort of national catastrophe, like say a virus that spreads through the air that we’ve never seen and know little about, were to hit the country, the supply chain would collapse. While testifying before Congress, Bowen is asked if he had any sense of how many more masks the country would have had the Government listened to his concerns and reactivated N95 manufacturing lines in January. “About 7 million N95 respirators per month.”

The administration’s relied on the free-market to save us, but they also ignored basic templates of supply and demand. The market won’t magically make masks until there is a demand for them. By the time the market begins to demand it, the supplies will be inefficient. It is one of the key failures of the administration. 

It’s one thing to be anti-government. But it’s another to also have no real knowledge of how the market works either in theory or reality. Being both, it turns out, allows you to see a boon in the economy while six million Americans are pushed into poverty.

Totally Under Control looks at how countries like South Korea and China handled the outbreak. The comparison comes about organically because if you are going to build a timeline about the spread of a global pandemic, you are going to have to look at other countries. What we see is educational and infuriating. 

Other countries had their hiccups but they course-corrected with urgency and clarity. The United States fumbled often and clumsily. The miscommunication between agencies and an utter lack of understanding of real-world consequences and realities made it all the more difficult to rebound from these mistakes. 

It is a study of horror and sluggish stupidity.

Max Kennedy Jr. volunteered for Jared Kushner’s Coronavirus Supply Chain Task Force. The goal was to help find ways to get more PPE masks. Kennedy felt apprehension about working for the current administration but with a rising body count, Kennedy put the country over party. “It seemed like if there was something to do to help, that was the right thing to do.”

He showed up with other volunteers expecting to be auxiliary support for an already existing procurement team. Instead, he and the others soon discovered they were the procurement team. For no pay and no oversight, these volunteers were expected to figure how to buy large supplies of PPE masks without any understanding of who or what would pay for them. For that matter, they also had no clue how one goes about contacting another country or who even to call.

Then they were asked to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements. Normally, volunteers aren’t required to sign NDAs. Especially if they are volunteering to help the government procure medical supplies during a national emergency. 

It is what is.

Watching Totally Under Control, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. Yet, the documentary is not combative or overly sensationalistic. Gibney, Hillinger, and Harutyunyan calmly and methodically collect the information and try to paint as truthful a picture as possible. They do not interrogate so much as simply ask questions.

But it is clear that the Administration’s tactics and blatant misinformation campaign have left many lost and adrift. We have all suffered during the past seven months. Totally Under Control endeavors to try and give us a wide-angle lens, to try and see the whole thing. 

Except we’re still in the thick of it. As of this writing, cases are beginning to spike once again.

Totally Under Control shows us what we have feared all along. That our own government did nothing, and in many cases actively made it harder to do anything just so others could make a profit, while thousands of people died and suffered. But the true horror is the near certainty that the people responsible will never face a lick of consequence.

It is a horror that is only surpassed by the thought that not only will they never face consequences, but that they will be re-elected and allowed to wage more harm and destruction upon us. But all is not lost. Totally Under Control reminds us that we are not alone.

In all this doom and gloom, that is the lesson. The thing that terrifies the ogres in power is that we are not alone. It is a simple fact but a comforting one. Together we will overcome this current obstacle no matter how frightening it looks.

Image courtesy of Neon

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