Watching a contemporary documentary about events unfolding in real time is a surreal exercise that elicits both despair and incredulity. Directors Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger’s film Totally Under Control (2020), available on Hulu, explores the (mis)management of COVID-19 in the United States and deftly investigates the way American politicians and public health officials responded — and failed to respond — to the pandemic in the first few months of 2020.
Utilizing a series of talking head interviews, news footage, primary documents, and voice over, Totally Under Control makes a compelling and chilling case for how our current leadership failed us.
Part of what makes Totally Under Control pulsate with energy and a kind of existential dread are the motion design graphics created by Jordan Bergren, a Cedar Rapids native. Bergren’s freelance work attracted the attention of Elastic Studios to do the motion design for Totally Under Control, his first national feature film.
“[Elastic Studios] was a dream client to work for,” Bergren said during a recent conversation. Though the film was made in just five months, “this never felt like a strenuous task,” Bergren enthused. “It was creatively fulfilling.”
Bergren’s dad was a video producer so growing up he had plenty of exposure to film.
“[I was] into video about a decade before motion design,” Bergren said. After a stint as a musician, Bergren registered for the School of Motion’s online boot camp, where he discovered motion design. “I’ve been doing it full time for about two years now,” he said, adding, “This [kind of project] is something I’ve been working really hard toward. This is a great personal achievement. But it’s so much bigger than me. I have to stifle the urge to jump up and down.”
In the opening of Totally Under Control, Gibney’s voice over notes that COVID-19 illuminates the ways in which “politics got in the way of science” under the Trump administration. A timeline Bergren created recurrently reminds the viewer throughout the film all the ways in which this administration failed to act for months as the community spread spiraled out of control.
Additionally, Bergren rendered squares over crowds of people in the film that feature red droplets, effectively underscoring COVID-19’s risk as an airborne disease. Bergren notes that seeing the particles floating around was a creative detail the directors wanted, but that the map sections in the film were the most time intensive renders.
Despite the work involved, Bergren is unequivocal on the pleasure of working with Harutyunyan and the other directors, as well as getting the chance to be a part of such a meaningful project.
While Totally Under Control is an amazing professional accomplishment, Bergren is thoughtfully cognizant of the tension between his success and the circumstances in which we all find ourselves as a result of the pandemic and the political sphere.
“This [film and experience] is a microcosm of 2020,” he noted, “where you have the juxtaposition of the world with COVID, and Black Lives Matter, and then this achievement.”
The consolation for us as viewers is that this film, and Bergren’s work on it, is a comprehensive overview of political corruption. It is up to us now to determine how we advocate for and demand real change.
The scholar Bill Nichols, who writes extensively about documentary cinema, notes that documentaries are marked by epistephilia, a desire to know. What Totally Under Control underscores is how our government knew from the very beginning how poorly equipped we were to handle the pandemic and, instead of working closely with scientists, assembled a Coronavirus task force that consisted of mostly businessmen and lawyers, known for their political loyalty, rather than their scientific savvy. The volunteers brought in to assist this group were 20-somethings with no government experience or expertise and were given little to no guidance on how to accrue equipment to help mitigate the fallout.
This film is an urgent and captivating look at what happens when we eschew facts for political gain. It is necessary viewing for anyone still struggling to understand how we find ourselves enmeshed in this mess and what we might need to change for us to make our way out of this darkness and into the light.