The title for Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Totally Under Control, comes straight from the mouth of Donald Trump, an oft-repeated turn of phrase the president used in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to describe his administration’s handling of it. The day Gibney finished the film, months after the virus arrived in the U.S. and resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Americans, Trump revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Shooting in secret using an innovative “COVID-cam” and conducting interviews remotely over Zoom, Gibney’s team spoke at length with doctors, government officials and whistleblowers to figure out exactly where Trump’s White House, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) went wrong in their handling of the coronavirus.
“We don’t see this as a political film. I suppose, at the end of the day, you could call it a true-crime film,” Gibney says. “It’s really a film about competence. And it’s just a look at a record, and you can judge the record based on the facts that you see.”
While Gibney and his co-directors, Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, are frank about their intentions to make and release Totally Under Control ahead of the imminent election, they hope viewers on either side of the aisle will come to the film with an open mind.
“It’s not political in a sense that we are trying to represent one party over the other. We’re not saying the Democrats would have done it better,” Harutyunyan explains. “We are really sticking to the facts and saying, ‘We need leaders who listen to scientists. The ones that we have didn’t. Here’s what went wrong.’ And then you make up your mind about what you do next.”
Hillinger adds, “I think no matter what side of politics you’re on, you can admit the fact that the last few months have been really confusing.”
ET spoke with the filmmakers via Zoom to discuss their attempts to get the White House to go on record, mounting evidence against Trump and what surprised them most about how the president handled his own COVID diagnosis.
At what point did you decide this was something you needed to be documenting as your next film?
Alex Gibney: That would be in early April. New York was the epicenter of the pandemic, and in April, a friend of mine died, another friend of mine was on a ventilator for two weeks, and there was just this sense that the federal government had utterly bungled the opportunity to contain and control the virus. So, it seemed like instead of experiencing this helplessness, that maybe there was a way of digging into the story and laying it out for people, particularly focusing on the early days. And to do so in a way that would have it out early so that it would have an impact on what is a kind of existential moment for our country. That was the plan. [Laughs] Then to execute the plan, I needed collaborators and that’s when I reached out to Ophelia and Suzanne, and thank God they said yes, because it wouldn’t have happened without them.
How did you go about putting the ask out for the people to be in the film? And what were those first reactions and responses you got?
Ophelia Harutyunyan: After doing very rigorous research for about a month, we put together a very long list of people we wanted to talk to. It was kind of twofold: We would look at the stories that we wanted to tell and see who would be the best people to tell those stories, but we would also reach out to experts and some of the people that you see in the film and see what stories they could tell. So, I think it was a collective combined decision of, “OK, this is the story we want to tell and this is the best person to tell it.” Obviously, we did reach out to people in the administration and at the CDC, HHS, all these agencies. We wanted to hear the stories from them. But unfortunately, we never got to interview anyone on the record.
We did speak to some people off the record, but there was a sense that they were afraid to talk on the record, because they were worried about losing their jobs. We were told their phone calls and emails were being monitored. So, maybe one day people will feel comfortable to speak up about their experiences, but knowing that there can be a retribution from this administration that can be a revenge-taking for speaking up about the truth, it was very hard to get people who had first-person experiences [and] people who were in the room when certain decisions were being made. So, that was tough. For that reason, we did interview some journalists like Michael Shear, who had sources in the White House, who could talk about those decisions from his sources and his reporting.
Did you get down the road at all with the White House or CDC or HHS? Or were you immediately shut down or ghosted?
AG: No, they ran out the clock.
Suzanne Hillinger: Very early on, I knew it would be a long process, so I spearheaded that endeavor and put in all our requests to the White House, the Task Force, HHS, CDC, with all of the top officials that I knew we really wanted to speak to. They asked for a lot of information, and I got on the phone with somebody from every agency. Alex and I ended up talking to Michael Caputo [of the HHS], who we later learned took a leave of absence. But before doing so, [he] was really in charge of making sure that the messaging coming out of the HHS and CDC was exactly what the White House was going to approve of.
So, we never got a no. [Laughs] We just never got a yes. We were very transparent with them about how important it is to get the story right and not have politicians speaking for these scientists, but have them be able to share their own story of, “What did they know in January? What decisions were made? How did you communicate this to the American people?” It’s so important to hear that. And for reasons we can only surmise, they never approved any of the requests. I think they knew we were airing in October and ran the clock.
AG: Luckily for us, we had two whistleblowers who were able to get us inside some pretty key rooms at key times, and that was hugely helpful, to be able to juxtapose that kind of insider testimony with the public health officials, who were all very open. You know, the ones we could get to speak.
SH: We had off-the-record sources confirming information, too.
Was there one person in particular that you really wanted to talk to but couldn’t make happen for whatever reason?
SH: So many.
OH: Honestly, we really wanted to talk to Dr. [Nancy] Messonnier. We thought that it would be really important to understand what was going on in her head when she made that crucial telebriefing announcement that forced the change of messaging within the CDC and the White House, even though they still tried to control it. She definitely was someone we were hoping we could speak to, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to get an approval from CDC or the different channels that we were trying to get directly to her. It didn’t quite work out.
AG: The other person I really wanted to talk to is Alex Azar. But unfortunately, we’re all victims of this kind of kabuki that politicians now perform where they give these broad bullsh*t pronouncements that bear very little connection to reality. But someday 10, 15, 20 years down the road, maybe Azar will actually get honest about the position that he was in in terms of trying to run these institutions that are supposed to be honest with the American people — like the CDC and FDA — and step-by-step allowed them to be corrupted by the Trump administration.
You spoke to your vision that this would cover those early days of the pandemic. Back in April, we were very naïve about how long we would be impacted by this. When the subject is still very much ongoing, how did you know when you’d found the end of your film?
AG: Figuring out how to end it was really about coming up with the moment when we could be definitive. And that’s why when the news broke that Woodward had talked to Trump on Feb. 7, before any Americans had died and that Trump knew then how deadly the disease was but continued to pretend that it was just a flu that was going to disappear and we were all going to be open by April, that gave us an end that led us back to the beginning, which seemed the most appropriate way of ending. [Laughs] Until the very, very end, when we were finished with the film — which was just about a week and a half ago — and then the very next day, Trump tested positive for COVID.
Why is it important to you that this come out now? I assume, because of the election.
AG: Yes, before the election. Look, politicians run on their record and what more critical part of the record here than how the federal government managed the pandemic? Because this is all out of the Executive Branch. So, if people are going to vote based on someone’s record as to whether or not this was a well-managed response, well, then our film is intended to say, “Here’s the record. Here’s what happened. Here’s how they managed — or more properly put, bungled — the federal response and cost the lives of so many.” It was intended to be an insight into that moment in a way that wasn’t just a recollection of some distant moment in the past but actually gave people an opportunity to change their future.
How do you make something that is critical of Trump, then, without being called partisan?
OH: You stick to the facts.
AG: Yeah, you stick to the facts.
SH: There’s so much video of him, there are so many tweets, there’s so much we could have included that someone could have construed as a low blow, and we set all of that aside. Every time you see Trump in this movie, it is showing evidence of something that he lied about, something that he misled us about, something that the scientists said one thing and he said the other, downplaying the virus [and] not listening to scientists. When he comes onscreen, it’s evidence showing his response or lack thereof.
AG: The other thing that I think is important about what we did was that while it certainly hovers around Trump and focuses around Trump, it’s about more than that. It’s really about how the government is constructed — how an administration is constructed — and how various parts of that government either try to respond to their mission, broadly stated, or become corrupted by the political process. So, in that sense, we tried very hard in the film not to be too Trump-centric, because I think that in itself becomes a danger. And even at the end of the film, we suggest that there are things that we learned from this pandemic that go way beyond Trump. After all, there are elements of Trump which are not unique to him. He’s the embodiment of a trend toward vilifying and destroying government that has been in place since Ronald Reagan. So, it’s set within a broader context. Again, all fact-based and all rigorous, but within a sense of the mechanisms of government, not just the quirkiness of a personality — though clearly when it comes to Trump, the personality has to be part of the story.
Alex, you’ve been making documentaries for years now. Have you noticed a change in the audience reaction over the years? I feel like you can make something that is fact-based now, and it can still be dismissed as, “Well, that’s your opinion.”
AG: I think this has been one of Trump’s great skills — and Trump isn’t the only person. Vladimir Putin is good at it in Russia and [Recep] Erdogan is good at it — this notion of encouraging a political tribalism that overcomes and overrides everything else. Because people need the vitriol that these leaders provide. With this film, as we were focusing on telling the story, we were also trying to conjure up the key theme for us — which is a way of coming up with an organizing principle — and that organizing principle was science versus politics. And politics can become effectively a mechanism for the worst kind of tribalism. Nevertheless, within that context, I do think that in the right moment, people can look at a record and look at a story and see in it what is for real. And they can choose to dismiss it or ignore it, but the hope is that it reverberates over a period of time in people’s heads and can cause them to question the way their leaders might’ve represented reality to them.
The film ends with the title card recognizing Trump tested positive for COVID. What were the conversations about how that affects your film or how you would address it?
AG: Let’s see, a week ago last Thursday, we had finished the film, and for that reason, I was sleeping very soundly that night. And then 2 a.m. Friday morning, I got a call from Tom Quinn at Neon, and he said, “Guess what? Trump has tested positive for COVID.” So, I didn’t sleep much for the rest of that early morning. And we all huddled, [asking] “Are we going to have to rip the film apart and put it back together again?” We came to the conclusion that we had actually successfully told our story, but this announcement added a bit of sardonic poetry to it. Of course, now, in the wake of that, we know that he himself became a super spreader event. But that was a way of both ending the film and giving it a kind of eternal life.
Have any of you been surprised by how he’s dealt with his diagnosis?
SH: I definitely had an optimistic thought that maybe him getting sick would allow him to realize how serious this virus was. I was stunned by the fact that that didn’t happen. Maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised, but I was. I really thought this could be a moment that he could change his messaging. But he didn’t.
OH: I definitely was not surprised he got the virus, because it was inevitable. He was extremely reckless. But I agree that I was a little surprised about him not only not changing the messaging, but making it worse, using his example to tell people, “I’m fine. You’re going to be fine, too.” In a way, encouraging people to get the virus. He said getting the virus was a gift from God or something like that. That is extremely dangerous, because he does have a lot of followers and a lot of people listen to him, a lot of people look up to him, and here was an opportunity to actually change the messaging and talk straight to the people. But he took it in a very different direction. That was unfortunately disheartening and still a little bit surprising.
AG: I’m older than Ophelia and Suzanne, so I was a bit more cynical. I anticipated that he would take it in the direction that he did. What was amazing to me, though, was that the days afterwards were such a concentrated theatrical performance — almost the theater of cruelty — that he conformed to and almost exceeded the exaggerations of his own administration to that date. He went into situations where he knew he was contagious and exposed other people, just as he was willing to allow people to die on account of slow-walking testing, for example.
The idea that he would have that Evita-like moment in the White House, throwing off his mask to once more encourage people to suck in the strains of the virus, because, “Look, I’m still standing here” and the fact that he would be so tin-eared about his own privilege. He got medical care that nobody in the world could get, yet he assumed it just showed how strong he was and how weak was the virus. It was a kind of jaw-dropping bit of theater from Trump in which he played himself beyond expectations.
Totally Under Control is on demand now and debuts on Hulu on Oct. 20.
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