'Totally Under Control' filmmaker Alex Gibney on Trump's hapless coronavirus response, Jared Kushner's ridiculous PPE strategy, and the breakdown of America's institutions

'Totally Under Control' filmmaker Alex Gibney on Trump's hapless coronavirus response, Jared Kushner's ridiculous PPE strategy, and the breakdown of America's institutions
President Donald Trump listens to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a briefing on the coronavirus at the National Institutes of Health, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Bethesda, Md.AP Photo/Evan Vucci
  • "Totally Under Control" is the new film codirected by the Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney that depicts the Trump administration's hapless early response to the coronavirus.
  • From Trump's lies about COVID-19's lethality, to Jared Kushner's ridiculous plan to have young volunteers armed with private laptops and Gmail accounts be in charge of securing the nation's supply of personal protective equipment, Gibney's film depicts each misstep that made the US crisis so distinctly horrible.
  • "The result looks more like a true-crime film than purely a film about competence, because the death toll was so high and the crimes of fraud and negligence are so extreme," Gibney told Business Insider's Anthony L. Fisher.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Alex Gibney, the Oscar, Emmy, Peabody, and Grammy award-winning documentarian, has directed dozens of acclaimed films.

Among the many disparate topics he has tackled on-screen include torture and the "war on terror" ("Taxi to the Dark Side"), the cruel scapegoating of the Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman ("Catching Hell"), Scientology ("Going Clear"), corporate corruption ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), and last year's hugely popular HBO film about the disgraced Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes ("The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley").

Gibney's latest film, "Totally Under Control" (codirected with Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan), documents the slow-moving disaster of the Trump administration's early response to the coronavirus pandemic.

From the early warnings that Trump dismissed, to the shockingly ineffective leadership at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to Jared Kushner's tragiccomic group of 20-somethings emailing business connections to secure personal protective equipment, "Totally Under Control" uses archival footage as well as new interviews with whistleblowers, medical experts, and doctors on the front lines of the pandemic to contextualize a great many of the reasons the US has had the worst COVID-19 response of any developed nation.

"Totally Under Control" is available on video-on-demand this week, and it premieres on Hulu on October 20. The Business Insider columnist Anthony L. Fisher spoke with Gibney via Zoom this week.


This interview has been edited for space, style, and clarity.

This is the first widely released documentary that's been shot entirely during the COVID era. What was the process like?

It was tough to figure out how to shoot during COVID, both in how to get images that look good and represented the moment and also how to do so in a way that was safe, both for the camera folks but also more importantly for the subjects.

The film had two approaches. One was the COVID cam — which was kind of invented by [cinematographer] Ben Bloodwell. It's sort of a tray with a handle, it's got a laptop, it's got a DSLR [camera] and a microphone. And we would send it to wherever the interview subject was and an assistant cameraperson would pick it up, put it on that person's porch, connect the internet, and then leave. They'd wait in a nearby car in case there was a problem.

Then the person would go outside and pick up the COVID cam. It was already on, so Ben could see the person, talk to them, and actually remotely operate the camera and get a nice-looking image.


The other option we had was the Airbnb option. Ben or another cinematographer would go to an Airbnb, kind of scrub it down, and then by themselves set up the lights, set up the sound, set up the chair, and put this big screen in front with shower curtains and everything — a virus barrier. The lens poked out, and on top of the lens was a kind of a teleprompter, and an image of whoever was conducting the interview would be projected. So the interview subjects would look directly into the barrel of the lens, and that had a kind of Zoom aesthetic, but nevertheless was better-lit and had a more cinematic quality.

'Totally Under Control' filmmaker Alex Gibney on Trump's hapless coronavirus response, Jared Kushner's ridiculous PPE strategy, and the breakdown of America's institutions
Supporters cheer as President Donald Trump leaves a campaign rally at the Orlando Sanford International Airport Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.John Raoux/AP Photo

Unspooling the disaster of Trump's early COVID response

One moment in "Totally Under Control" that leaped out at me was Trump saying on February 28, "we have lost nobody to coronavirus." It was at a huge rally and drew big cheers. It's chilling, given what we now know was happening at the time he said that. And it's amazing to realize that's not even eight months ago.

And the very next day, we did lose somebody.

You've gone through all this archival footage and you've contextualized the tick-tock of what the administration knew and when. How does it hit you now, emotionally, after everything that's happened since?

We intentionally focused on the early days because that was when a different kind of plan really could have made a difference. What's chilling to me now about those remarks, particularly in light of the interview Trump gave to Bob Woodward on February 7, is that Trump knew very well that he was lying to us all. And worse than lying to us, he knew those very lies were permitting the virus to spread uncontrollably.


How deeply cynical and cruel is to intentionally slow-walk testing, and also lie about the threat of a disease that you know is mortally dangerous, which will permit the disease to spread more rapidly and put more people in danger. That's really the dark part of this story.

And not too long after that, on March 6, Trump explicitly says on camera that he doesn't want the stranded cruise passengers on the Diamond Princess to be tested because that will make the number of US positive tests go up. We all watched this happen in real time, but Trump's cynicism is astounding.

We use another quote later on in the film where Trump said, "Slow testing down, please." He's literally saying he doesn't want to test because he knows the more you test, the more the numbers rise, which looks bad for him. That's like an oncologist seeing a polyp and saying: "You know what, we'll just let that pass and hope that maybe disappears. I'm going to go on a vacation now and I'll see you back in a couple of months." How irresponsible that is, it's really jaw-dropping in its cynicism.

One thing I think we're going to look back on is how quickly the pandemic begins right after the impeachment trial ends. And in this period of chaos and unaccountability in government, Trump fires a bunch of inspectors general.

He had been doing that for some time. I mean, that's his M.O. It really is all about him. And that's why the tension in making this film was we needed to hold him to account, because he is the commander-in-chief. He's the president of the United States. But we were very cautious about not making the film too Trump-centric because there is, after all, a government to consider. And also the people whose job it was to push back against the president, in this case did not. And then juxtaposed to what Trump was doing, were these poignant stories of the public officials, public-health officials, who were trying desperately to make a difference and to keep people safe. And they're being consistently undermined by Trump himself.


So it was a real challenge, because that's the great and terrible skill that Trump has. He keeps us all so distracted by his outrageousness, which is intended to draw attention to him, so that we don't pay attention to things like the sacking of the inspectors general, to the way testing was slow-walked, all the policy issues and all the mechanisms of government that one after another he's filling with sand and glue.

'Totally Under Control' filmmaker Alex Gibney on Trump's hapless coronavirus response, Jared Kushner's ridiculous PPE strategy, and the breakdown of America's institutions
Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner speaks in the press briefing room with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force April 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images

'This administration works outside of the government'

One argument I've been hearing a lot from Trump-sympathetic people is that "Of course, there's political appointees running the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, that's how it goes." But it seems like this particular CDC leadership is much more beholden politically to the president than would seem normal.

Let's not be too cynical. When you're a political appointee and you are appointed to be head of the CDC, for example, in a way you're serving two masters. You're serving the president because you've been appointed by the president, but you're also serving the institution and the ethics and goals of that institution. It's your job to serve both, which is how good governance works. In the Trump administration, there was only one job, which was to serve Trump and to say what he wanted to hear, to do what he wanted to do, and let the institution be damned.

What you see with Trump is the corrupting of institutions that it turns out are very valuable. People can talk all they want about the "deep state." Another way of talking about the deep state is to say that institutions have values. And the CDC was known as the gold standard in terms of epidemiology and understanding disease and the production of vaccines. All of that was hugely influential throughout the world, and that has been completely undone by Donald Trump. He's corrupted it.

Max Kennedy, one of Jared Kushner's volunteers — the 20-somethings he put in charge of securing the nation's PPE supply — says in the film, "This administration works outside of the government." That feels in line with what you're saying. That particular Trump political appointees have hollowed out the government--


They have.

And that's how you end up with images of volunteers using Gmail accounts and private laptops in a dark room, begging companies for PPE.

It's feckless. These were kids — in their early 20s. They so desperately wanted to help that they're volunteering their time to work 80 hours a week in the middle of a pandemic to try to help get valuable PPE — N95 masks, gowns, and gloves — to doctors and nurses.

They go in and discover that, actually, they are the plan and that there's no guidance for them except, "Do a Google search on who might have PPE in China." Worse, they're not even permitted to buy materials themselves or to affect the way the government might buy those materials. They're there just to cut deals, so that then a certain small group of selected companies can go in, get that stuff, and then profiteer off it.

Not only were [the companies] subsidized by the government, but they were permitted to sell these materials to whoever they wanted, sometimes even foreign countries, and make whatever profit they thought was meaningful to them. That meant the states, as we show in the film, were going on eBay desperately trying to keep up with the soaring prices of stuff that was desperately needed for nurses and doctors. The cynicism of that, the idea of bringing a business approach to government, is really shocking.


Can you tell me a little more about who these volunteers were and how they were recruited?

There was just a word sent out by some of Kushner's people, "Wouldn't it be great to have some volunteers," and there was an operation out of FEMA where Kushner said he was going to run his PPE task force. So it was a "through the grapevine" kind of thing.

Max Kennedy Jr. told us his former employer approached him and said, "I hear that they're looking for volunteers to work really long hours to try to help Jared Kushner's new team find PPE." It was very ad hoc. There was no routine to it. There was no experience needed. Just show up.

But the most shocking thing for the volunteers was that they expected they were going to be doing data entry, running for coffee, being support troops for a robust organization that was already running on six cylinders. But to their chagrin and horror, they discovered that they were, in fact, the task force.

Did Max Kennedy violate his nondisclosure agreement by speaking with you?


He did. But he did so with good legal advice. The NDA was probably not valid, and they weren't being given any classified information. The NDA was purely an afterthought to try to contain the damage that would come from exposing the truth of what was actually happening.

I was certainly shocked and surprised with Max Kennedy's testimony, but what was also surprising to me was stumbling on the "Crimson Contagion" story.

In October 2019, the Trump administration published its own report on how to handle a pandemic that arrived in this country from China. It had all the lessons learned about what they did right and wrong in that exercise, and how that would enable them to do better in the future. They had a very detailed playbook on how to handle this properly. And then when the pandemic came, they left that laminated playbook on the shelf. They never opened it. That was a shocker.

The damage wrought by the well-meaning lies of the 'experts'

Early in the pandemic, when PPE was in desperately short supply, the CDC and the surgeon general both told the public, "Don't wear masks." They said they're not effective in preventing coronavirus. We now know they were lying, too, and it was a last-ditch effort to keep N95 masks available for first-responders and hospital workers and prevent bulk panic-buying.

But with the levels of trust in institutions already so low in this country, was the lie worth it?


I'm not sure it was. That all could have been done a different way. There had to have been a way to give a kind of truthful reckoning and account to the American people, even while safeguarding that supply. But this also goes back to the beginning.

Rick Bright, who was running BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority), which is focused and dedicated to pandemic response inside the government, said in early January that we've got to get it together and gear up on PPE right now. This is even before the first COVID test, just as a way of precaution, and nobody listened. It's like saying "What's the point of finishing the roof because it's sunny today?"

'Totally Under Control' filmmaker Alex Gibney on Trump's hapless coronavirus response, Jared Kushner's ridiculous PPE strategy, and the breakdown of America's institutions
President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.Win McNamee/Getty Images

This film drops three weeks before the election, and it's covering events that are still very fresh. What do you want people to get out of this?

Again, to emphasize, this film focuses on the early days. And the reason it focuses on the early days is because those were the days when all of this could have been prevented. I think it's very important that people understand that we don't have to be in the situation that we're in. And that's why we use the comparison with South Korea, because they never had to shut down their economy and country of 51 million people. They now have a total of less than 500 COVID deaths. Even if you multiply that by six, it's a tiny number compared to our titanic death toll.

The film is about competence. It's not a political film — it's not designed to be one party attacking another. It was designed to look at an administration, and how did this administration that prides itself on its business approach to governance handle this? That's the bottom line here: Did they do a good job or a bad job?


Unfortunately for this administration, the result looks more like a true-crime film than purely a film about competence, because the death toll was so high and the crimes of fraud and negligence are so extreme. I hope people will see that and render a judgment in early November on the complete incompetence of this administration in terms of dealing with public health, which affects all of us.

I'm sure the film was totally wrapped up and sealed with a bow when Trump's positive COVID test became public two weeks ago. But what was your reaction to that news?

The film was finished, officially, the day before that announcement, and I was sleeping soundly as a result. But at 2 a.m. that Friday morning, I got a call from Tom Quinn, the head of [the film's distributor] NEON. He said Trump has tested positive for coronavirus. So I didn't sleep much more that morning. And the team huddled early in the day to reckon with what we were going to do. Were we going to open the film up? Were we going to delay its release?

Ultimately we decided the best way would be to both end the film, and then throw it forward. So we put in a card at the end that said, "One day after finishing this film, Trump tested positive for coronavirus."

Everything that happens after that is part of the news, but just stating that at the end of the film seemed a way of both throwing it back to the beginning and extending it out into the future.