Director interview'The political leadership got in the way of a good response'

Whistleblower film shows Trump coronavirus response not ‘Totally Under Control’

Using unique filmmaking techniques, Suzanne Hillinger and colleagues uncover politically motivated decisions that ignore science and turn US handling of pandemic into chaotic mess

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Medical staff in PPE, as seen in 'Totally Under Control' documentary film (Courtesy of Neon)
Medical staff in PPE, as seen in 'Totally Under Control' documentary film (Courtesy of Neon)

As of October 22, nearly 228,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, surpassing all other countries.

A new documentary film released just weeks before the upcoming US election shows exactly where the US Federal government under the Trump administration went wrong. Even more importantly, it explains why the government has failed to protect its citizens from the effects of the devastating pandemic. The filmmakers’ answer is clear: politics got in the way of science.

Produced and directed by the award-winning team of Alex Gibney, Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, “Totally Under Control,” is more distillation than exposé. For anyone who has followed the news closely while in quarantine or lockdown this year, little in the film will be a huge revelation. Nonetheless, there are a few draw-dropping moments during the 2-hour running time.

“Totally Under Control” provides a clear and detailed timeline for the dangerous missteps taken by an administration that favors politics over science. One way it does this is by contrasting the US with South Korea. While both countries detected their first cases of COVID-19 on January 20, South Korea let scientists handle its national response, and it quickly put in place a comprehensive testing, tracking and isolating system that limited illness and kept the country’s economy going. This did not take place in the US.

Filmed remotely and secretly beginning in May, “Totally Under Control” includes interviews with 17 subjects, including public health and infectious disease experts from various parts of the country who have observed the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic with great frustration. Several were on the verge of tears, conveying heartbreak at not being able to properly do their lifesaving jobs.

In an interview this week with The Times of Israel, Hillinger said, “The majority of our interview subjects were willing to talk. They also felt like there was messaging to get out to the American people that was not getting out from within the government. They felt some kind of duty to do it when their colleagues within the administration were not going to be able to do it.”

Dr. Vladimir ‘Zev’ Zelenko. (YouTube screenshot)

One of the most demonstrably unperturbed interviewees was Dr. Vladimir Zelenko, the family doctor from the Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel, New York, whose unproven cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin and zinc sulfate was touted by President Trump. Zelenko’s recommendation eventually led to the FDA circumventing protocols to authorized the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 under pressure from the administration.

Max Kennedy, Jr. as seen in ‘Totally Under Control’ documentary (YouTube screenshot)

Although no one currently within the government agreed to be interviewed on camera, several whistleblowers, who recently left or were fired from their positions within the administration, provide insight into the division and disorganization that ended up costing American lives.

One of the most gobsmacking testimonies comes from Max Kennedy, Jr., the 26-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, who put politics aside and volunteered for a team formed by Jared Kushner to procure much-needed PPE for hospitals. The team turned out to be a small group of 20-somethings with no relevant experience, using their own laptops and email accounts to try to track down PPE suppliers around the country and world.

Kennedy decided to violate a nondisclosure agreement he was forced to sign when he became so distressed by what he had seen going on. He sent an anonymous complaint to Congress, and then appeared in “Totally Under Control.” The administration’s chaotic pandemic response was “was like a family office meets organized crime, melded with ‘Lord of the Flies,’” Kennedy said.

Filmmaker Suzanne Hillinger (Alexis Johnson)

Emmy-winning Hillinger, 39, has worked as a New York-based documentary filmmaker since graduating from Boston University. Hillinger spoke to The Times of Israel about the technical challenges of filming during a pandemic, the urgency in making this documentary, and what she hopes people will take away from it.

Why did you want to make this film now, when we are still in the midst of an unfolding story?

Alex [Gibney] had a couple of friends who got very sick at the beginning of the outbreak. One died and another was on a ventilator for a long time. I think he felt like, what is going on? We have some of the best hospitals and medical experts in the world. What is going on that we are not able to get this under control? What were the decisions made by our federal government that led us here? By April when he got very serious about making this film and he went and raised funds, it was clear our leadership had failed us in some way.

No matter who you are voting for, you should understand what happened and know the facts

There was a real urgency to try to understand the decisions that were made that were affecting all our lives. Committing to have the film done by October came out of that feeling. No matter who you are voting for, you should understand what happened and know the facts.

Has the virus affected you personally?

I had the coronavirus in March. It was the first week of the shutdown in New York City and it was really scary. There wasn’t a lot of information out there… I had a tele-appointment with my doctor who said there aren’t a lot of tests and you should just stay home, and if you can’t breath you should just go to the hospital. And that just terrified me.

Is it true that no one working on the film met in person?

All the work was done remotely. Alex, Ophelia and I did not sit in the same room until the sound mix, which was the last two weeks. We were in a big theater and sat 10 feet apart from one another with masks on. That was the first time in making this movie that we were in the same building. 

So how did you interview the subjects?

The main thing is that we didn’t want to put anyone at risk. There were two options. For some interviews we used  what we call “the COVID cam,” which our cinematographer Ben Bloodwell devised. It’s basically a small camera mounted onto a laptop tray with handles, and then a laptop is put on that, and a microphone is rigged to it. We’d have a local camera assistant drop it off on a subject’s front steps. We’d all be logged in on Zoom, and our cinematographer would be able to control the camera remotely.

Others agreed to have a single camera person come over and set up a camera behind a shower curtain with a hole cut out for the eye direct, which is a mirror system that allows a subject to look into the barrel of the lens. But what they’re seeing is not the lens itself, but the image of the interviewer. It’s a system whereby, through a two-way mirror, you can superimpose the image of the interviewer over the lens so that the subject can make eye contact with the lens.

US President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

What happened when you tried to get people in the administration to speak with you?

No one in the administration was willing to speak on the record. We went through the whole rigmarole of putting in interview requests for the White House coronavirus task force or HHS or the CDC. We had a very long list, specifically the leadership and the respiratory virus experts in the government who we wanted to speak with… Since we were going to air in October, I got the sense they were just running the clock. They never denied an interview request, but they never granted one.

When there is already so much news out there on COVID-19, why should people watch “Totally Under Control?”

You can read the news every day, but so much has happened since January that I think that putting it together in a compact narrative where you really see how things unfolded helps you understand exactly how we got to where we are now.

You are able to see the faces of people who really care about this

Also, the visual form does do something that TV or print news can’t. You are able to see the faces of people who really care about this, and the emotions. I think that is harder to get across in other media. We were able to do it in more of a storytelling device through which we can engage people. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a House Subcommittee hearing on the Coronavirus crisis, Friday, July 31, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)

You claim that this is not a political film, but how does that square with its release right before the election?

I think that it has political effects, but I think that going into it, we just wanted to understand what happened. If we had uncovered that some crazy breakdown of the system happened in a prior administration, or that this is purely systemic and had nothing to do with the current leadership, we would have included that in the film. That is not what we discovered.

We went into it with open eyes and making sure that we told the story truthfully and fairly

We went into it with open eyes and making sure that we told the story truthfully and fairly. What we learned was that it was the political leadership that got in the way of having a good response. 

There is so much archival and news footage out there of President Trump  that we could have shown just to make him look totally incompetent and stupid. We didn’t include that in the film on purpose. We made sure that when you see our president in the film, we are showing evidence of a response he had that had a direct impact on the American people. 

What do you think is the biggest takeaway from this film?

When you have a health crisis, you need to set aside politics and not let that get in the way… Find the trusted scientists who have been researching this for their careers. Listen to them.

Also, our public health system needs to be more proactive and less reactionary. These outbreaks are going to happen more and more and we need to be ready for them.

“Totally Under Control” can be viewed now on various streaming platforms, including Apple TV/iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Hulu.

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