In “The Final Year,” filmmaker Greg Barker rides shotgun with the principals of then-President Obama’s foreign policy team as they hopscotch the globe in the waning days of his administration. The director intended to make a campaign film like "The War Room," which followed Bill Clinton's rise to the White House, "but in reverse," he said, to capture the emotion and drama inside a presidency that was rushing to the finish line.
Then his paean to policy-making got a startling third-act twist: Donald Trump.
“I’ve never had a film where the experience of watching it is so changed by the mood or politics of the moment,” said Barker, whose narrative chugs toward election night like a freight train headed for a cliff. Yet if the goal is to expose the human dimensions of statecraft, the film succeeds with poignancy. After their years of effort in Obama’s second term, these fervent public servants are heartbroken in the closing stretch.
The camera witnesses a teary-eyed Ben Rhodes, the high-profile Obama speechwriter and national security advisor, with his head in his hands. Samantha Power, the U.N. ambassador, struggles to keep her composure as spirits deflate at an election party with Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem.
In a bittersweet turn, what seems catastrophic for the Obama legacy that the film’s subjects so vigorously worked to secure gives “The Final Year” unexpected gravitas.
“If Hillary [Clinton] had won, the film would be seen more as about the craft of diplomacy, the art of pushing water uphill,” said Power, a former Obama advisor who served at the U.N. during his second term. “By virtue of the changes that have occurred, it does cast more light than I think we were aware on the substance of what we were trying to do.”
The film follows Power, Rhodes and Secretary of State John Kerry, with appearances by Susan Rice, the national security advisor, and Obama, as they advance — and sometimes stall — on several fronts, including a nuclear deal with Iran, the struggle to resolve conflict in Syria and the warming of relations with Cuba. Barker and his crew were in constant motion, whether tracking Obama’s historic visits to Laos and Hiroshima or hopping on a ship with Kerry in Greenland to witness the effects of climate change.
“We were in that bubble,” said Barker, who traveled to 21 countries in three months.
Power, who was acquainted with Barker through his previous work, could appreciate his mission, having once been an observer of government as well. “People on the outside really don’t know what it’s like on the inside,” she said. “What compelled me was the way Greg talked about his aspirations for the film.” As American faith in government plummets, there was hope that “more exposure would breed more respect,” Power said. “Not because we had all the right answers, or we were going to look like a well-oiled machine, but because people were trying so damn hard.”
The ambassador, a scholar and former war journalist who won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for a study on genocide, also opens the door into her life away from the global stage. Power decided it was important to include her role as a working mother. “It was OK to show the inelegance of the juggle … having those cameras around when you’re putting your kids to bed at night.”
Private and professional life dovetail when the diplomat gives a passionate speech at her nanny’s naturalization ceremony. “In a million years, I wasn’t thinking about a new administration potentially coming in and deporting people, collecting social media data from new immigrants or having a Muslim ban,” she said.
As he filmed breaking news events, Barker had an advantage over the network and cable reporters who often also were present. He was free from the constant reactive demands of a 24-hour news cycle. Because the documentary would be released a year after the events, it gave its subjects the blessing of posterity. “There’s stuff you can say,” Power said, “and you’re a little more liberated.”
Given the new president’s efforts to undo many of Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishments, “The Final Year” may not only induce nostalgia for a suddenly bygone moment but also serve as a kind of counterpoint.
“I think people are watching the film and playing the contemporary narrative in their mind at the same time,” Barker said. “It will be interesting for people who didn’t like President Obama, as well. I’m very curious to take this out into the wider world and see how it plays.”