When Mike Pence began defending the Trump administration’s coronavirus response during last week’s U.S. vice-presidential debate, perhaps TV producers should have simply replaced Kamala Harris on the split screen with a few minutes of the galling new documentary, Totally Under Control. The swift tick-tock narrative of the government’s lying and bungling was rushed to the finish line to be ready before the Nov. 3 elections. The Globe and Mail spoke last week by phone with the film’s directors, Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger, and Ophelia Harutyunyan, who were practising physical distancing in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, respectively.
This is a pretty quick turnaround for a feature documentary. When did you start production?
Harutyunyan: The first week of May. We decided early on we were not going to chase the story. For us, it was important to look into the first crucial months of the pandemic and understand what went wrong.
In a press release, your U.S. distributor said the film had “a bombshell premise": that most of the deaths in the U.S., the lockdowns, the economic damage could have been prevented if the federal government had done its job. Given how much impressive news coverage there’s been, is this really a bombshell? Is that news?
Gibney: The problem I think with our news cycle now is everything is a series of details that are randomly laid out, without any kind of larger meaning or interconnection. And I think the bombshell in this story is to be able to convincingly convey, in a narrative fashion, how most of this damage could have been prevented. People, I think, have settled into the notion, particularly in the United States, that this ‘just happened to us’ and there was nothing we could do. Actually, that’s just dead wrong. Because of this reckless conflict between scientists and politicians, the politicians insisting on a sort of magical realism – instead of listening to the plans that we had already devised to be able to handle a situation like this – catastrophe resulted. That I think is the news.
How difficult was it to resist the urge to make this film all about Donald Trump?
Hillinger: I think to go into investigating the response in the film, and to come in with preconceived notions that it’s all Trump’s fault, is incredibly narrow-minded. We wanted to make sure, if we’re going to place blame, we need to understand how the system works. There are all sort of serious, systemic problems with the way the government’s run. I mean, a lot of these political appointees, they didn’t just pop up overnight. Bush and Obama also had a lot of political appointees, there’s more political appointees in our federal government than ever before, and that’s been an upward trend for the last few administrations.
Speaking of the political appointees in the U.S., you contrast that with South Korea, where the health care professionals are the ones making the decisions. The U.S. is a notoriously insular country, and has become even more so over the past few years, through its America First approach and its withdrawals from alliances and international organizations, including the World Health Organization. Are you hoping the film will help your country recognize there are things it can learn from others?
Gibney: We quite consciously included the notion that South Korea had learned a lot from the United States as a kind of a beacon, and learned a lot from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] in the past – as many other countries have, including China. So the idea that we would refuse to learn lessons that work well elsewhere just seems to me to be the essence of the kind of America First stupidity that Donald Trump seems to represent.
One of the most appalling accounts of the governmental breakdown comes from a guy by the name of Max Kennedy Jr., who joined the special coronavirus PPE procurement emergency task force and ended up revealing it was staffed by amateur volunteers. How did he come to your attention?
Harutyunyan: We were aware of his story, because he had submitted a whistleblower complaint, and he had reached out to The New York Times and The Washington Post, and they did anonymously quote his story. But he was scared [to talk on camera] because he had signed an NDA, and he was young and inexperienced. We were so happy that he could actually tell his story, because every sentence he would say, we were like, ‘Oh my God, what? I can’t believe – what? They said what? They did what?’ It was just incredible.
Am I the only one surprised that somebody with the last name of Kennedy ended up on a task force ultimately overseen by Jared Kushner?
Hillinger: When Max signed up for this, they never did a background check before he showed up. He told us they didn’t even check their IDs on their first day, they just let them into the building. So I don’t think they were organized enough to know who was joining the task force, they just took whoever wanted to come and work for free and do the work.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how much schadenfreude did you each feel when you heard Trump had been diagnosed with COVID-19?
Gibney: (laughs) Let me just say, I thought it was a powerful piece of sardonic poetry.
Harutyunyan: Honestly, throughout the entire time that we were making the film, I was surprised that he hadn’t contracted COVID already. So the fact that it happened – I mean, the timing was kind of unbelievable – but when he tested positive, I said: ‘Of course.’ I mean, it had to happen. It wasn’t a matter of if but when.
Harutyunyan: I think [her call] just dropped, actually.
Well, then, let the record show that none of you answered that question.
Gibney: We pass the Mike Pence test!
Totally Under Control is available for rent or purchase now on digital platforms.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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