Wednesday, December 23, 2020


I didn’t think I’d want to see Totally Under Control. Why, I thought, do I want to relive how COVID-19 spread through the United States as the government, from our bloated egotistical leader on down, flailed, denied, downplayed obfuscated, and lied? I lived it. I am living it. And then there’s director Alex Gibney, whose documentaries are so sturdily constructed, well-researched, simply framed. He makes films so frequently, and so frequently journalistic and of-the-moment, that they tend to pile up like so many unread issues of The New Yorker. Yeah, yeah, I think, I’ll get to that at some point. Yet I pressed play anyway, and I’m glad I did. Perhaps its the immediacy of this subject that gives this one such momentum. It picks up with the novel coronavirus exploding in China, an ominous storm on the horizon as our nation sits unprepared and unworried. With his co-directors Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, Gibney marshals a staggering amount of information into a comprehensive timeline of disaster and despair, fear and floundering. Here is 2020 as we lived it, all the new unfolding at once, brought together, with clear context and comprehensive facts. It runs just over two hours and yet flies by, an outpouring of information strung along like a disaster narrative. We see all the instantly-memorable news footage — the overflowing hospitals, the cringing press conferences, the viral videos — and copious talking head interviews with doctors and scientists fresh from the front lines. In every moment there’s a vivid sense of instant history — yes, the viewer thinks, that’s how it felt. It’s like inhaling an entire year’s pandemic news feed in one bracing go. There’s great value to its bringing together of all of this so-very-recent history all in one place. Put it in the time capsule. The closest comparison I could think of is Charles Ferguson’s 2007 Iraq War doc No End In Sight. We rarely get these methodically enraging just-the-facts present-tense journalistic assessments of an unfolding disaster. The ironic title is a bitter sting. Even with vaccines and a better president, it’ll be a long way to go until we can say this disease is under control.

Alexander Nanau’s Collective is a similarly harrowing view of an unfolding disaster, but it’s intimate and deliberate, burrowing inward and growing all the more expansive for it. This documentary is about the process of reporting out a story, tracing the tendrils of corruption and deception, lies and greed, stretching through government and private business until it literally chokes out lives. The film is flat-faced horrifying and precisely constructed — a fly-on-the-wall closely-filmed document hurtling down the dark corridors in which its subjects attempt to shine some light. It fits right in with the Romanian New Wave films of the last decade and a half — films of sociopolitical vision, mordant humor, and expansive understanding (like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Police, Adjective; and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) pin-pointing misery and its causes in the hushed tones of bureaucracy or paperwork in achingly personal moments of crisis. Those are vivid fiction, though. This is real. We follow a team of sports reporters who find themselves well positioned to report a massive scandal involving Romania’s hospitals. It begins with a fire in a nightclub. Some concertgoers are killed in the inferno. Several are rushed to the hospital with horrible, but recoverable, burns. Then they die, too. How could this happen? The answers start with diluted cleaning products and soon spiral to implicate the highest levels of power in systemic corruption. It becomes a group portrait of these diligent journalists looking to expose a nation’s deepest wrongs, and a vision of what it takes to confront cabals of rotten power brokers working only for themselves. It has to be a collective action to bring a spotlight on our world's darkest places.

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