‘The Curve’ Director Adam Benzine On His Covid-19 Documentary Examining “90 Days That Changed America”

As Oscars Documentary Branch voters mark their shortlist ballots this week, they’ve got 238 feature films to choose from, including a handful on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus docs fall roughly into two categories—ones that focus on the outbreak in Wuhan, China (76 Days and Coronation) and ones that focus on the Trump administration’s catastrophic Covid response (Totally Under Control and The Curve).

The Curve, from Oscar-nominated director Adam Benzine (Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah), covers the critical period from mid-January to mid-April when the U.S. went from zero Covid cases to more than 29,000 dead from the disease.

“The film focuses on 90 days that change[d] America, but really [the Trump administration] lost control of it in those first 60 days,” Benzine tells Deadline. “That was their window to act…By the time they’re locking down (in mid-March), it’s too late. The typhoon has hit.”

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The Curve dissects key decisions by the administration, beginning with a 2018 move to gut a pandemic preparedness unit established by President Obama.

“There were ample warnings that if you dismantle this pandemic preparedness team, if you just wrap it all up under one person, under [National Security Adviser] John Bolton, who has a huge portfolio, then it’s not going to be efficient,” Benzine observes. “It’s not going to work. And that’s exactly what we saw play out.”

Even President George W. Bush, like Trump a Republican, had argued for a robust pandemic readiness plan. In a clip from a 2005 speech included in The Curve, President Bush states flatly, “Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare.”

As Bush’s comments indicate, preparing for epidemiological disaster had been “a bipartisan issue,” Benzine notes, and squandering that consensus “was a foolish mistake.”

The Trump administration also botched testing early on, The Curve says.

“We never had good visibility on where disease was in the United States and how it was spreading, and that’s because we never had good testing,” Dr. Ali S. Kahn, a former CDC official, comments in the documentary. “I call that the original sin.”

Throughout much of 2020 President Trump congratulated himself for having limited travel from China on January 31 to thwart the spread of Covid. But even that measure was ill-conceived, Benzine maintains, criticizing “the failed border closure, which misunderstood how a virus would happen, allowing green card holders and citizens to return from Wuhan without a mandatory quarantine and only stopping foreign nationals from entering. Doing it as a nativist issue rather than a public health issue.”

The Curve holds Trump accountable for failing to model mask-wearing to the public. In a section of the film titled “Mixed Messaging,” the president announces in an April 3 briefing that the CDC is advising Americans to wear masks. But he quickly adds, “This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

The documentary, however, doesn’t blame Trump for absolutely everything.

“It’s not all Trump’s fault. Our experts within the film do say as much, [commenting] that America has had a public health preparedness problem that far predates the Trump administration, and that this would have been bad whoever was in charge,” Benzine allows. “Similarly, the film talks about how Black and brown Americans and minority Americans are disproportionately impacted by this virus. Black people having disproportionate access to healthcare is not something that began with Donald Trump.”

And yet…

“There’s no getting around the fact that he [was] America’s chief executive, and he viewed acknowledgement of the pandemic and its effects as being an inherent criticism of himself and his job performance,” Benzine asserts. “That meant because of his unique psyche, he wasn’t able to acknowledge the pandemic as it was happening, without viewing it as a personal defeat.”

As for how Trump’s successor is handling the pandemic, Benzine expresses approval.

“I think Biden’s doing a great job…on all fronts, in terms of the people he’s appointed, the tone that he’s taking, the serious commitment to this,” he comments. “Setting realistic expectations, that this is not going to be something he can fix in a week. He’s doing the best he can with what he’s inherited.”

Benzine hails from the U.K. and now lives in Toronto, lending him an international perspective on the crisis.

“I did think, ‘Well, I’m a Brit based in Canada making a film about the situation in America.’ But I also thought that that came with significant advantages because you can’t just dismiss me—I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life because I’m not an American,” he tells Deadline. “That does allow me to be above the fray somewhat, and I did try to do that.”

The Curve is available for viewing through Vimeo on Demand. Benzine says the production was modestly funded and late in the process he ran out of money, prompting him to launch a Kickstarter campaign that raised $68,000 (Canadian). His goal was to make the film available before the U.S. presidential election last November, a ferocious deadline that brought enormous pressure.

“It was incredibly stressful,” he recalls, adding that he got by on “a combination of Red Bull, coffee, cigarettes, and Vyvanse abuse, I would say. 18 hour days…It took some months to recover after the film. I was physically wrecked from doing it.”

There will be many more documentaries on the Covid pandemic in the coming years, Benzine expects, but he sees The Curve as remaining relevant for a long time to come.

“I hope it will serve as a historic time capsule,” he says. “And that when people look back on this event…that people will refer to this film as how people covered it at the time, how people contextualized it at the time…I’m very proud of the finished film.”

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