The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of our lives since the Coronavirus swept across the world in the early parts of 2020 and continued to spread, bringing a halt to our daily routines, forcing us indoors, and pressing pause on the production of pretty much every form of entertainment.
While big-budget movie and television productions spent much of the year shut down and in a confusing holding pattern, art does find a way, and we've seen some amazingly researched and shot documentaries throughout the year. With streaming services like Hulu and Netflix, as well as television networks like PBS and ABC producing some of the most riveting explorations of our new world, there's a lot to take in.
And while not all documentaries are created equal, there are a few examples that do a tremendous job of presenting the science of the Coronavirus, the impact on the lives of front-line workers and their families, and how the world responded to the worst public health crisis in more than 100 years. These documentaries look at the virus from different angles. While some focus on or address the politics, others focus on the spread, the impact it's had on society and even the race for a vaccine. Here are five examples, including Totally Under Control, that you may find interesting.
Totally Under Control
Director Alex Gibney's latest offering, Totally Under Control, is probably the best documentary you can watch if you are looking for a rundown of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the United States of America and how the nation's health and government officials attempted to make sense of the ongoing crisis. Starting in the early stages of the virus (the final weeks of 2019), Gibney treats his documentary as a timeline exploring multiple aspects of the pandemic with sections dedicated to the issues with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) first test kit, how Coronavirus became a political issue, and the public health community's fight to combat the disease.
There are several parts of Totally Under Control that are admittedly very political, but that is true for nearly all documentaries, reports, or articles covering the ongoing public health crisis since it began to spread. If you want to avoid politics when watching a documentary about COVID-19, there are plenty of other options (some listed down below), but if you are interested in seeing how America's political climate impacted the nation's response, then check out Totally Under Control on Hulu or for free on Neon's website.
If you are interested in seeing how things were handled in the early goings of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, then Ai Weiwei's documentary Coronation is going to be your best bet. The film, which was directed remotely in Europe by Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, combines footage captured by dozens of volunteers and film crews from within the closed-off city at the epicenter of the pandemic, as well as other quarantine zones across China. Through the use of hidden cameras, Coronation captures some of the biggest moments of the pandemic, including the construction of instant hospitals, the doctors and nurses working within their newly constructed halls, and the people who found themselves trapped as cities began to shut down.
It should be noted, however, that there is no narration and the Coronation jumps from story to story in its nearly two-hour runtime, but there is almost a meditative quality to its presentation. From the electric score (very similar to the one found in Contagion) to the long periods of no speaking at all, there isn't another documentary about the COVID-19 pandemic like this one. Also, there are some incredibly tragic moments captured by the various volunteers and camera crews who gathered footage, including a section focused on family members trying to retrieve the ashes of their cremated loved ones. If all of this sounds interesting to you, rent or buy Coronation on Vimeo.
Since 2018, the Vox-produced Netflix docuseries Explained has touched on everything from K-Pop to the world's water crisis, but one of the series' most fascinating explorations is the three-part dive into the COVID-19 pandemic, titled Coronavirus, Explained. Narrated by J.K. Simmons, Laura Linney, and Idris Elba, this limited series touches on the pandemic, the race to develop a vaccine, and how to cope with the ongoing crisis and its effects on millions of people's mental health.
While the series does get into some of the politics surrounding the pandemic, it attempts to present things in a more factual manner and instead focuses on the health experts and their overview of the disease and its long-lasting effects on the world and its people. Each episode is under 30 minutes in length, so this is the perfect option for someone who doesn't want to become overwhelmed with a two-hour documentary, which is totally understandable considering the circumstances. Check it out for yourself on Netflix.
Inside Italy's COVID War
Before America was one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots, Italy experienced one of the worst outbreaks of the virus in early 2020, and some of that is captured in the PBS Frontline episode "Inside Italy's COVID War." This 54-minute documentary follows several front-line workers at a hospital in northern Italy that has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. Much like Coronation, "Inside Italy's COVID War" offers one of the most in-depth looks at the doctors, nurses, and patients fighting to survive a virus few knew anything about at the time.
The primary focus of the documentary is set on Dr. Francesca Mangiatrodi, a senior ER doctor at Cremona Hospital as she works day-in and day-out making life-and-death decisions that often deal with deciding who gets a ventilator and who dies. Filmmaker Sasha Joelle Achilli approaches the documentary without a political agenda and takes more of a "fly on the wall" approach to the way in which she and her crew present the deadly fight. You can watch "Inside Italy's COVID War" on the PBS website.
American Catastrophe: How Did We Get Here?
And then there is the ABC 20/20 episode "American Catastrophe: How Did We Get Here," which as the name leads you to suspect, tackles the American government's response (or lack of) to act on COVID-19's warning signs, its delayed approach to understanding the severity of the pandemic, and the other stumbles and falls experienced in the months since "sheltering in place" became a thing in March 2020. Some of what was covered in Totally Under Control is touched on in the ABC News special, particularly the way political leaders and public health experts butted heads and entered a pattern of start and stop in the early and consequential days of the global pandemic.
The two documentaries share other similarities as well, including large sections dedicated to the group of former government officials and health experts who went by "The Wolverines" in reference to the 1984 action thriller Red Dawn. This shouldn't take away from either documentary, and both, like the rest of the entries listed throughout this piece, should be watched if you want to know more about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Check it out on the ABC website.
If there is one takeaway from these documentaries and the crisis they each cover in great detail, it should be that like the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the facts are constantly evolving and it will be some time before this story is wrapped up, if ever at all.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.