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Totally gone mad: Covid-19 and the Trump presidency

When it was announced that American president Donald Trump had contracted the coronavirus, there was a collective sense of schadenfreude for many, most especially in the United States. For filmmakers Ophelia Harutyunyan, Alex Gibney and Suzanne Hillinger, the news heightened anticipation for their film Totally Under Control, which focuses on the early bungling of coronavirus containment by the Trump administration.

The trailer to the film, released around the same time that Trump’s illness was announced, clocked up 6 millions views within 72 hours. The timing of the film — which is being released by distribution company Neon just weeks before America’s national elections — will probably strike a body blow to Trump’s campaign, but may not be enough to totally cripple his bid for reelection. 

The foundation for this speculation is glimpsed from the film. The United States of America  is a country where the zealotry surrounding Trump and his politicisation of the response to the coronavirus runs too deep to be cornered by reason. Slotted between the often heartfelt interviews with health officials, journalists and scientists are frenzied scenes of anti-mask campaigners wreaking havoc in public spaces; gathering en masse and conflating their actions with patriotism, as one commentator says.

The symbolic head of that movement is Trump himself, who mostly refused to wear a mask, forcing his underlings and entourage to undergo frequent testing in order to assuage his fears of infection.

A master of longform documentary having made, among others, Citizen K and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Gibney admits that the current project, put together in five months since May, was seeded by anger. “I was sitting in New Jersey in March and April  and I became enraged at what was going on,” he told DP/30 host David Poland in a joint interview with his co-directors. “And, frankly, there was personal consequence. A friend died of Covid and another was on a ventilator for two weeks. We were getting teary phone calls from parents of kids who were trying to get them into emergency rooms and they wouldn’t test them even though they had Covid.”  

In Totally Under Control, the Covid-19 reaction time of South Korea is often compared to that of the US (Neon)

In a litany of screw ups and cover ups, it is the bungling of testing that emerges as a key driver of fatalities, which currently hover around the 220 000 mark. In January, with his eye on re-election off the back of a promising economy, the threat of the coronavirus and the panic it would set off was the last thing Trump wanted to confront. To the press in Davos, he refers to it as “the new hoax”, telling journalists as the first positive case is confirmed that it is “one person from China… and in a couple of days we’re gonna have it close to zero.”

But in the coming days, Trump’s administration would turn a blind eye to pandemic containment precedents in the form of the playbook developed in the Obama age in the aftermath of the swine flu. Strangely, the findings of its own Crimson Contagion, a 2019 project to assess the readiness of the federal government to contain a hypothetical pandemic from China also fell by the wayside in favour of a short-sighted strategy to undertest and underreport. 

While pressure from medical practitioners saw a batch of test kits distributed in February by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), thanks to emergency use authorisation, a fault with a component of the test saw them recalled, further stalling the testing process by a month as the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC went back and forth.  

It was probably within that “lost month”, with very little capacity for gauging the extent of the spread of the pandemic, that the US was set on a path to massive loss of life.

Completed under a state of lockdown, in some ways, it is a remarkable feat that Totally Under Control  looks and feels as it does. But then again, its powerful backing means that footage was never really going to be a problem. While watching, one often feels one is reliving the early days of the pandemic in real time, only this time on US soil.

The documentary features a range of interviews with medical professionals, scientists and whistleblowers (Neon)

The narration is efficient and the talking heads, numerous as they are, hardly feel static. The three-director team, splitting the interviews between them, were able to rack up the number of interviewees, who provide richly detailed accounts from their respective posts as journalists, medical practitioners, bureaucrats and scientists.  

In order to avoid those washed-out Zoom screens that many took to during the lockdown, two distinct camera set-ups were configured. One was a portable rack that the interviewees could pick up from the door and take to their comfort of their desks; another was a booth that offered separation between interviewer and subject through the use of shower curtains. 

Occasionally, the fourth wall is broken to show us the interviewers picking up the rig or settling into the booth. While removing the air of grimness that invariably clouds a topic of this nature, the frequency of these shots seems a tad self-congratulatory.

 That said, the overall look and feel of the film – primarily the timeline and graphics – help to maintain a narrative focus while providing a visual reference to the scale of the spread of symptomatic and asymptomatic infections.

Timed for release close to the US presidential elections, Totally Under Control reveals the myopia at the heart of Trump’s presidency

The layers to pick at in this film are numerous, with one emerging with a distinct sense that the Trump administration stalled on containment protocols precisely because it understood that should its strategy run out of steam, death would overwhelmingly stalk black and brown communities.

While the Black Lives Matter movement hardly gets a mention, even as George Floyd’s death dovetailed with the peak of the virus in the US, in the context of the film, one can also read the protests as battling expendability foregrounded by the mismanagement of the disease.

Perhaps more so than other aspects, Totally Under Control is a damning exposé of the sycophancy and myopia that fuel Trump’s leadership style. Its completion and release at the time that Trump has to eat his words, is, as Gibney told the LA Times, “perfectly sardonic poetry that harmonised what we were saying in the film”.

Totally Under Control is available to stream via Apple iTunes

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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