'The plan was in front of us but leadership would not do it': New documentary 'Totally Under Control' reveals 'what went wrong' in the U.S. COVID-19 response

Elisabetta Bianchini
·4 min read
COVID-19 in Canada
COVID-19 in Canada

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on globally, a new documentary Totally Under Control is sounding the alarm on the Trump administration’s failures in responding to the spreading infection.

Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, along with directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, try to answer questions about what went wrong in American pandemic efforts, which resulted in the country seeing well over 200,000 deaths and more than 7.8 million confirmed cases.

They indicated that they decided this film had to be made in April, right in the middle of the New York COVID-19 nightmare. The filmmakers also admitted that there was a sense of responsibility to get this information out to the public before the U.S. election.

U.S. President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 just a day after the film was completed.

The subjects interviewed, revealing their personal experiences with the U.S. response to COVID-19, include Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), former director of the CDC Dr. Tom Frieden, Dr. Eva Lee, infectious disease specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Max Kennedy, a White House Covid-19 supply-chain volunteer, among many others.

‘Not easy’ to come forward with the Trump administration

One of the many captivating moment comes from Dr. Bright, the vaccine expert and whistleblower who recently called the messaging from Trump following his COVID-19 diagnosis “reckless” and “deadly” in an interview with CNN.

In Totally Under Control, you see the pain Dr. Bright still feels for making the difficult decision to break protocol and push back on the government’s commitment to using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, with limited research. In the film, he stresses that it is “not easy” to come forward in this administration.

“The plan was in front of us but leadership would not do it,” Dr. Bright said in the documentary. “It is time to lay our careers on the line and push back.”

Dr. Bright, in his former position, was hearing from Michael Bowen, executive vice president of the medical supply company Prestige Ameritech, daily as he was “sounding the alarm bells” on the country’s limited mask supply. The former BARDA director also tried to alert the national stockpile and others that the U.S. needed to reactivate N95 manufacturing.

Bowen said around 2005, all major mask makers left the U.S. and put supply in the hands of foreign control, which he said could be subject to diversion during a pandemic.

20-year-old volunteers responsible for procuring PPE

Totally Under Control also tells the fascinating story of Max Kennedy Jr., 26-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, who volunteered for the White House COVID-19 supply chain, under Jared Kushner’s oversight.

When Kennedy arrived in D.C. he was shocked to discover how much of a role 20-year-old volunteers were actually expected to play in the procurement of critical supplies. They were all held together in a room with televisions showing Fox News, watching the death count ticker increase every day.

Kennedy revealed these volunteers used their own personal email accounts and looked online for international companies that could possibly provide healthcare supplies to the U.S. While he was a volunteer, the team Kennedy was with was not able to procure a single mask.

The volunteer ended up ​breaking his NDA and filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint to Congress, and has since quit his position.

Still from the documentary "Totally Under Control" (Elevation Pictures)
Still from the documentary "Totally Under Control" (Elevation Pictures)

Human stories from people on the frontlines of the pandemic

Totally Under Control comparison of the U.S. response to COVID-19 vs. South Korea, is an incredibly frustrating display of a variety of preventable blunders. You even get to hear from Dr. Kim Jin Yong, infectious disease doctor at the Incheon Medical Center in South Korea, who reveals that most of the textbooks she studied as a student were from the U.S., and how the CDC was a wealth of health education.

It also highlights the politicization of public health measures, like wearing masks, which were initially put in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Everyone around the world has been impacted by COVID-19 but Gibney, Hillinger and Harutyunyan crafted a narrative that also shows the human side of the people involved in the U.S. pandemic response. They have just been doing their best to keep Americans as safe as possible and feel a sense of responsibility for the failed response, although many things were out of their control, and certainly not “totally under control.”

Totally Under Control is available on digital and on-demand platforms on Oct. 13