Greg Barker was aware that there had been a number of documentaries about candidates getting elected to the White House, with The War Room being probably the foremost example. So his thought was to try to spend time with an administration as it was winding down. After all, he was curious: What does a presidency look like when its end is in sight? From that kernel of an idea emerged The Final Year, a sobering and enlightening movie that’s the result of the Emmy-winning filmmaker being embedded with Barack Obama’s foreign policy team over the span of about 14 months as Obama prepared to leave office.
Traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power; spending time with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and National Security Advisor Susan Rice; and even capturing a few moments with Obama himself, Barker’s on-the-run documentary is an intimate portrait of an administration in the midst of doing its job. There are challenges everywhere — from the rising bloodshed in Syria to the fragile nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran — and The Final Year takes us inside the nuts and bolts of diplomacy. Lacking the heightened electric crackle of fictions like The West Wing, the documentary emphasizes just how grueling and incremental this crucial work can be. It also makes the case that Obama’s team was exceedingly thoughtful, passionate and intelligent — and even that wasn’t enough to solve some of the world’s thorniest problems.
But there’s also an inevitable poignancy hanging over the proceedings — one that its participants couldn’t possibly have anticipated when Barker’s cameras were following the administration across more than a dozen countries. Namely, all of their diligent efforts to reshape America’s foreign policy — and to change the world’s view of the country in the wake of the Iraq War — will be quickly and perhaps irrevocably capsized by the unexpected election of Donald Trump, an event that features prominently in The Final Year’s final, bittersweet moments.
Barker, who has previously made documentaries about the capturing of Osama bin Laden (Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden) and the impact of homegrown Islamic terrorism in America (Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma), recently spoke with me about The Final Year, which hits theaters and streaming platforms on Friday, almost a year after Trump took office. Barker had plenty to say about Trump, but he also offered insights into what it’s like living in the White House bubble; how people in those jobs maintain their intense stamina; and why he knows that some Obama voters may find his movie too painful to watch.
I didn’t know if I could sit through your movie — I was actually kind of dreading it. I wasn’t sure if I could handle being reminded of how much smarter and more thoughtful Obama and his administration seemed than the current regime. Was it hard for you to keep rewatching this footage?
In an odd way, it was actually an escape. In our cutting room at least, Obama was still president! [Laughs] So I could go in there and have this wonderful escape. Obviously, we had a job to do and the film is constructed to lull one into the sense of, “What do these people do who do such great stuff in the world?” But as an audience, it’s like Titanic — the iceberg is looming, but the characters in the film have no idea what’s coming, and it’s done like that intentionally.
Especially with Trump in office, the Obama years seem like a dream — they feel like they happened so long ago.
It’s hard to know what to say in this current environment as a documentary filmmaker because stuff is happening so quickly. I felt privileged, because at least I have a voice and I have this footage that I know nobody else has anything like. We made a film that would speak to the moment by telling a story of the recent past. I always intended to hold [The Final Year] for about a year after the inauguration to give the new president time to settle in — to see what the Trump administration was going to look like. It looks different than a lot of us imagined it would ever look like. And then I wanted to take [the movie] out to the world when people were ready to look back. So now, I think it feels like what “normal” [used to look] like. It seems like light years ago, but in fact, it’s the way things should be done — and probably will be done again once we get through this.
How much did Trump and his team’s tone affect how you edited The Final Year? In some ways, your movie feels like an indirect reaction to what Trump has done his first year in office.
There are two narratives: There’s the narrative of the film and the narrative in our heads, comparing the film with what we’re living with today. But honestly, when I was cutting, we weren’t thinking along those lines, because it changes so much day-to-day and week-to-week. We did the last edits in June and July. That was a very different world than what we’re in now. So we just made the film that felt right with the footage that we had, knowing that the ending was them handing over power to people that they never expected to hand over power to. But in terms of Trump, I didn’t find it constructive to edit around his choices.
I find that the experience of watching the film has evolved for me personally over the last year. And now to take it out into the world, it has much more of a punch than when I first looked at it a year ago.
Is there more sadness for you when you watch the footage now?
It’s interesting, we’ve screened the film a dozen or two times at different film festivals, and we never know what the audience mood is going to be. Sometimes the mood is totally depressed and dark. Often though — probably most of the time — people seem to be energized and inspired.
We really took our cue from what Obama was saying to his staff in the weeks after [Trump’s] election — that history has its ebbs and flows, and you have to put this in a broad perspective. So I think that audiences tend to have optimism coming out of screenings. People have had career- and life-changing moments after watching the film. They’ve been disillusioned with government — for lots of great reasons — [but now] think, “I want to get into [government], or do diplomacy, or get into public service, or get involved in a local campaign.” I’ve heard those stories firsthand from people who have watched this film, and that’s very gratifying.
Obviously, a lot of people will see The Final Year just because they love Obama. It would be easy to make a movie that just said, “Wasn’t Obama great?” How did you deal with that temptation to just be a cheerleader?
I thought of [The Final Year] as being like a three-act drama. They set out their vision of how to change the world and how they wanted to recalibrate American foreign policy, and then they were met with very difficult problems, like Syria in particular. And then they have their own internal disagreements, which really were a product of the challenging issues that they had to deal with. But also, this is a group of people — kind of like a band — that’s been together for a decade, and they’re naturally going to have their falling-outs and their arguments. There are a lot of love-hate relationships there, like you have amongst any colleagues who have been working together for a decade and in intense situations.
So I had no desire to show “Isn’t Obama great?” I think when you watch the film, he’s an incredibly articulate man. If you think that Obama was the greatest president ever, you’ll see a lot of stuff in there to validate that point-of-view. If you think they were naïve or over their heads internationally — or that they missed the boat when it came to Trump’s election — there is stuff in there to validate that, too. But what I hope it does is humanize it and not illustrate it as a binary issue — whether Obama is “good” or “bad.” I just wanted to show that this is what it felt like on the inside, with an interesting cast of characters who went on this emotional rollercoaster, and we’re along for that ride with them.
What’s sobering about the film is how it argues that, no matter how well-intentioned, intelligent and passionate these people are, they’re trapped in a bubble. They’re really insulated from the world. That feels like an inherent problem with these jobs.
The bubble is the challenge. Inside the bubble, you get information that nobody else has, and you have power that nobody else has. It’s not absolute power — I think those jobs can be quite humbling in terms of what you can’t get done. But nonetheless, they have power and access that none of us have.
It was interesting for us to see that when you travel with the president, you get inside those security cordons — they call it “inside the closed bubble.” You literally go through various layers, and then you’re inside. And once you’re inside, it’s free — you can move around and you’re in the bubble. But the challenge is what you would expect. It’s very hard to break out of that and to get information from people who might have better information than the government has — but they’re not in the bubble, so you can’t get that, and you can’t break out. Part of it is just the pace of those jobs. It’s hard to make time to [break out of the bubble].
That’s one of the reasons why [in The Final Year] Samantha Power goes to West Africa, to ground herself in the real-world consequences from these decisions back in Washington. But that bubble is where I wanted the film to inhabit, where you hear these voices critiquing them but they’re in the ether of outside the bubble, sort of piercing in occasionally. That world is very complicated, and it’s full of flaws, and yet, at the same time, it’s very enticing, alluring and addictive.
We see Power get choked up a couple times — she seems to be the most visibly emotional person in the film. Because she’s a woman, it made me wonder about gender dynamics in terms of showing emotion, or balancing emotion and logic when making these types of high-stakes policy decisions. Did you observe any tension between the administration’s male and female staff in terms of striking that balance?
Because of her background as a war correspondent, Samantha feels that it’s crucial to get out and see things directly and to experience them directly. As she says in the film, most foreign policy takes place in very boring conference rooms, and it’s easy to forget that there are lives at stake. To recognize the real-world consequences and to honor the dignity of the individuals on the ground whose lives are at risk — that’s why she does it. And what she would say is that it’s not “emotional” at all — it’s actually the way that you can be most effective, because if you’re not recognizing the real-world consequences, you’re going to make decisions that [disregard] what’s likely to play out in the field. You have to incorporate both: the politics and the reality on the ground. If you can marry those two, you can have a more effective policy. So it makes her cry because she’s there.
Ben or Kerry would have teared up at those exact moments, too. And I know that every day she would write up very detailed reports of those trips for Obama, who would read them and be very affected by them. Because remember: The guy grew up in Indonesia as a kid, and I think that he very much was connected to America’s role in the world and to the lives of ordinary people in a way that I think is rare and probably unprecedented for an American president. And he would [go out in the field] if he could, but he couldn’t, so she kind of did it for him. So I don’t think it’s a male-or-female thing — it’s just more a way of seeing the world, and by the nature of who she is and the job she has, she was able to do that more.
It’s impossible to watch the movie and not appreciate just how grueling these jobs are. The long hours, hectic schedule and massive amounts of traveling: How do these people do it?
I think it’s caffeine and adrenaline. [Laughs] And exercise. Obama worked out a lot. They spend time to keep the body strong. But I was really struck by it. We traveled to 22 countries, and it was exhausting. I spent a lot of time away from my family — and I love the work — but it was very tiring, and it’s nothing compared to what the people with those jobs go through. And it’s not just them — it’s even more taxing on their staff. When the president goes to sleep at one or two o’clock at night, someone else is then staying up all night to write a speech. Or Samantha’s team is staying up all night to give her briefing points. There is a moment in the film when Ben had been up, I think, literally all night the night before writing the president’s remarks. He was fried — how could you not be? But they just kept going because of adrenaline. And then one day, in one moment, it’s over. I think that it’s probably taken this past year for a lot of them to physically recover.
Once that intense hamster wheel stops, how do they possibly readjust to regular life?
Samantha compared it to being a professional athlete. Suddenly, you have to stop. She said that it’s strange for her, because her sport is diplomacy — and now the sport isn’t even being played anymore. But I think it’s hard and that it takes time, and they find other outlets. A lot of them are writing books. Just before we premiered in Toronto, I had a screening in D.C. for some of the people who had helped make it. Susan Rice was there, and at the end of it, she was like, “Man, I had no idea how important sleep was. I looked terrible!” I think a lot of them now look a lot more rested. There’s a reason that presidents age in office. It takes a big toll on their staffs as well. It’s so relentless.
Even if Hillary had won, a lot of these people would’ve been leaving these jobs and turning over the keys to new people. Isn’t this an inherent problem with our democracy? It’s always a new team taking over every four or eight years.
I think it’s more of a plus than a minus. People burn out, and they cease to be effective after a certain amount of time, just because of the pace. So you need that turnover and fresh enthusiasm.
I think the real problem now is that there are many people in the background — many of whom are career foreign-service officers, intelligence officers and military people within the State Department — and what has happened during the last couple of months is that a lot of those people who would normally stay on and serve Republican or Democrat [administrations] are becoming disillusioned and have left. You see a draining of the expertise that the principles [of government] depend on.
Say, for instance, North Korea: You want the career staff person at the table to say, “Mr. President and Mr. Secretary, here are the options. And remember that President Clinton did this and President Bush did this. This is how we’ve handled this problem over the last 30 to 40 years….” This isn’t just information from reading the news — pick a major issue, and there’s a whole classified narrative that these high-level staff people and career people know, and that needs to be conveyed to the president. [Because of Trump] those people are leaving. And you can’t replace those people overnight.
That’s what’s really worrisome — the disregard that the Trump administration has for what’s now known as “the Deep State,” which is a ridiculous term. That term comes from the corruption of the military/bureaucracy that’s controlled Egypt since the 1950s. So to apply it to our institutions is irresponsible, wrong and unpatriotic.
You encapsulate the shock and numbness of Election Day 2016 by catching Ben Rhodes as he’s sitting outside by himself late that evening. He can’t even speak — he can’t even fathom what’s just happened. It’s a great moment, but I also wondered as you were filming if you thought back to what he says earlier when he confidently predicted that Trump couldn’t possible win the presidency. The juxtaposition of those two moments in The Final Year is really striking.
In that moment, I try to be totally present. Right then, I was just thinking about the emotions that I could feel coming from him — and making sure the camera was rolling. [Laughs] It’s like a confessional sometimes doing these things — you want to be there for the person as they’re going through something really difficult, and to honor and respect the privilege that they’re having that experience with the camera running. I don’t want somebody sticking a camera in my face, so I recognize that. But later, I did think it was obvious that I was going to use that moment — but I’m not quite so Machiavellian as to be thinking about exactly how it’ll fit into the film at that moment. I wait at least five minutes for that. [Laughs]
You said earlier that those who were critical of the Obama administration would find things to support their position in The Final Year. What mistakes do you think his team made?
[With foreign affairs], it’s a question of war and peace and how do we reconcile the impulse to make the world a better place with the impulse to look at the military solution as a possible way through any given challenge. I think that certainly they will be thinking about Syria for the rest of their lives and ask themselves if they got that balance right. It’s hard to sit back and say that they’ve gotten it right because of the tragedy that’s unfolded there. Then I think, on a broader level, there’s a debate that’s present in the film: Is this the best of times or the worst of times? Which reality does it make sense to emphasize in any given moment? Did Obama get that balance right? You can debate that.
The Final Year highlights the Obama team’s empathetic, sober approach to foreign policy. Obviously, this isn’t the Trump way, which is far more blustery and provocative. His voters clearly prefer that kind of macho posturing — they think it conveys strength. You spent a lot of time with Obama’s team — I’m wondering if there were any moments when you thought that they could’ve benefited from indulging in a little more tough talk.
No, not really. Trump’s team hasn’t been confronted by any major crises yet. They think they have, but they haven’t. When that comes, I think that he’ll find that his glib tough-guy talk doesn’t go very far. President George W. Bush found that out and later admitted it in his presidency — just saying “my way or the highway” isn’t effective.
I don’t know if Trump has it in him to grow into the office. What happened with North Korea in the last 12 months wasn’t happening during 2016 — had it happened then, who knows what they would’ve done? There’s no easy solution to that. And there’s value to pressuring China and to being unpredictable. Perhaps being not perceived as stable can be a useful thing. [Laughs] But I think [the Obama team] saw themselves as a sophisticated and smooth-running machine, which makes the crash and the iceberg all the more powerful. They thought they had it all figured out, but they didn’t.
Trump slowly starts to appear on the margins of The Final Year, but the people you filmed don’t take him too seriously. How worried were you about his odds of getting elected?
When he got the nomination, we were in an airport lounge in Burma. I remember [thinking], If he’s the Republican nominee, there is a chance that he can win. I didn’t think he was going to be the nominee, but there he was. And of course, it was worrying, thinking about the consequences of our country and all that.
But I was as surprised as anybody else when he won. I also thought, though, He may not be an intellectual, but he’s not stupid. Whatever Russia did in the election, he defeated 16 other candidates to get the Republican nomination, including beating out Jeb Bush. Maybe he’ll grow into the office. So the last year has been worse than I would’ve anticipated.