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Alex Gibney On New Documentary, 'Totally under Control'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Remember this?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One person coming in from China...

It will go away. Just stay calm.

In a couple of days, it's going to be down to close to zero.

We have it totally under control. It's going to be just fine.

MARTIN: Those were some of President Trump's earliest statements about the coronavirus pandemic showcased together in a scene from "Totally Under Control." It's a new documentary by Alex Gibney, Ophelia Artinian and Suzanne Hillinger.

Quite clearly, the government led by President Trump does not have this crisis under control, with more than 220,000 people dead, small businesses shuttering by the day, unemployment at record levels and lines at food banks on the rise. And the question the film sets out to answer is, why? Filmmaker Alex Gibney is with us now to tell us more about his latest work.

Alex Gibney, thanks so much for joining us.

ALEX GIBNEY: Thanks, Michel. Pleasure.

MARTIN: So just let me start by noting some of your previous award-winning work. I mean, you've dug into places that were hard to crack, like the drug company Theranos in your film "The Inventor," the Church of Scientology in your film "Going Clear." So these were places that were hard to get into.

In this case, with this subject matter, I think a lot of people in the country feel like something's not right, but they're just not sure what it is. So I just wanted to start by asking, like, what was your goal with this film? What was your starting point? Was it something's wrong, I just don't know what it is? Or did you know from the outset what was wrong and set out to show it?

GIBNEY: It was the former. You know, I remember thinking that I should do this film - and I had no business doing it because I was doing a lot of other things. But I was in New Jersey. I had shut down my office in New York City. We were sort of in the epicenter of the pandemic.

And I remember thinking, something is wrong with the federal response, but I don't know what it is. And I'd sure like to do a film about it. And I'd like to see if I could do it quickly enough so that it would actually come out, you know, before the election so that what I discover would be useful to the American public in terms of making a - rendering a judgment. But it was definitely something - there's something happening here. What it is ain't (ph) exactly clear - that kind of thing.

MARTIN: There's so much here, and there are just so many sort of points to kind of dig into. The main point that you're making with the film is that it didn't have to be this way. And one of the main ways you make this point is to compare the U.S. response to that of South Korea's. So talk a little bit more sort of about that. Why did you pick South Korea? I think a lot of people would say, well, that's a much different country. It's a lot smaller. Culture's different. Why do you think that's an important comparison, a legitimate comparison?

GIBNEY: Well, one was because the starting point was the same - January 20. So that seemed relevant. And, yes, it is a smaller country, but it's a country of 51 million people. And it's also heavily urbanized, which is to say, you know, it should be, you know, the ideal grounds for a pandemic to spread. And, yes, it's a different culture. But I think the reasons that South Korea got it right don't have that much to do with culture and have a lot more to do with organization and learning and also political will.

In South Korea, seven days after they discovered that first COVID-positive patient, they have this emergency meeting in the Seoul train station with government leaders and also heads of industry. And they decide that they're going to move quickly to start distributing COVID-19 tests, which they had already, you know, developed and were in the process of manufacturing, to the entire country so they can get their eyes on the disease. And because it was asymptomatic for so long, you had to be able to test for it.

And the United States didn't put in place a national testing program, even the beginnings of it, until late February. And by then, the virus had spread out of control.

MARTIN: One of the big points that you make in the film addresses something that the president says a lot and that his supporters say all the time. You say, oh, nobody could have anticipated this. And you make the point in the film that that's absolutely not true. Researchers, infectious disease specialists, computer modelers, intelligence analysts all over the world have been expecting something like this.

But you also pointed out - this is something that I think a lot of people may know - that the Obama administration had left plans in place to deal with pandemics, plans that were set up because of a less-than-satisfactory response to the Ebola crisis. And they left a playbook for future administrations. And this is a clip from the documentary featuring Beth Cameron, who's a biologist who was part of the Obama administration's pandemic readiness office.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL")

BETH CAMERON: The playbook was intended to allow people in the White House to ask questions. What should we do? And also, what do we need to do to get ahead so that we're not constantly reacting?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So what happened to this playbook?

CAMERON: So the playbook is reported to not have been used.

MARTIN: So do you have any sense of, you know, why? Why would they not just take it off the shelf, open it and get going?

GIBNEY: First of all, the Trump administration just had utter contempt for everything about the Obama administration. So if the Obama administration had done it, they were going to do the opposite. So they just weren't even going to look at that playbook, which is really (laughter) - really a ridiculous response.

But worse than that is that the Trump administration had actually conducted a vigorous exercise in 2019 in which they anticipated what it might look like if a coronavirus from China came and was of pandemic proportions in the United States. And they did this experiment with a number of states, and they reached conclusions which allowed them to develop their own playbook. And this was in - they published it in October 2019. And just two months later, the real pandemic hits. But they never pull that playbook off the bookshelf. And that is (laughter) one of the great mysteries.

I think we came close to solving that mystery. But initially, it's one of the great mysteries. Why wouldn't you go to the very playbook that you had spent so much time developing in addition to the one that you were handed by the Obama administration?

MARTIN: Well, the film makes so many devastating points. But one of the points that you make, I think very powerfully, throughout the film is the dissonance between what the president was saying publicly and what the experts behind the scenes knew to be true. And I think that a lot of people might have questioned whether he understood the science, whether he really believed what he was saying.

It emerges very recently that he did know how serious this was. And we know this because of the reporting in the journalist Bob Woodward's book where he has the tapes. So I just - you're left with this question of, you know, why? Why would he allow this to unfold the way it has?

GIBNEY: It really is a staggering question. And I think the answer, unfortunately, is pretty dark. Trump wanted to slow-walk the testing because if you test, you find out that people have the disease. And that looks bad, and then maybe that hurts the economy. Maybe that hurts your reelection chances.

But the other thing that does - you know, we talked earlier about testing because you don't have eyes on it. But when you don't have eyes on it, what it means is that it's spreading, and it's spreading rapidly throughout the population. So the very thing you saw to avoid the damage to the economy is what happened precisely because of what he did, which was to allow the disease to spread even though he knew how dangerous it was.

MARTIN: There are those who will view this documentary as itself a political document because you've said you had a lot of things going on. You clearly kind of - the making of this was clearly a sort of an act of intense will (laughter) to get it done. And you did want to get it in time, before the election. So what would you say to those who say, this is itself a political document?

GIBNEY: It's a funny question because when you think about voting, surely what we want to do for voters, particularly as journalists and as filmmakers, is to inform voters so they can make an informed decision about who should be president. To say that informing a voter is political is just wrong. I mean, it's involved in politics, and it's involved in democracy, but it's not partisan.

We didn't do this on behalf of the DNC. We did this as a fact-finding exercise to find out if, in fact, the federal response had been bungled by this administration. And we conclude based on the facts that it had been. But seems to me that that is a vital piece of information that you have to give to voters just before they go into the voting booth or mail in their ballots.

MARTIN: That was Alex Gibney. He co-directed the documentary "Totally Under Control" along with Ophelia Artinian and Suzanne Hillinger. And the film is out now.

Alex Gibney, thanks so much for talking with us again.

GIBNEY: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRK MAASSEN'S "SINAAI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.