When Greg Barker began shooting his documentary about the Obama foreign policy team in early 2016, he had the expected thought: this would serve as a nice elegy to an outgoing administration.
Then the unexpected happened.
“There was going to be this friendly handoff of power, and then we’d see more of the accomplishments solidified,” Barker said of his initial intentions for the movie, titled “The Final Year.” “And of course there was an X-factor they didn’t see coming.”
That Trumpian curveball changed the last few months of filming, which continued until the inauguration. And it makes the final product a fundamentally different beast. What had been a straightforward D.C. document, color-drenched but benign, becomes an urgent ideological rebuttal when viewed through the lens of 2017.
Barker’s film — which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday as it seeks distribution — is the result of a painstaking process courting President Obama’s foreign policy staff, particularly U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and senior advisor Ben Rhodes. Drawing on his reputation and relationships from earlier movies (they include “Manhunt,” about the quest to find Osama bin Laden), Barker eventually persuaded the White House to let his cameras in.
The result is a fly-on-the-wall look at the team — President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry included — huddling in the West Wing and taking their diplomatic show on the road in places from Africa to southern Europe during its last year in power. There also is (some) critique of Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria.
“The material is classified, but the emotions aren’t,” Barker said in the interview, and indeed, viewers watch as each of the movie’s principals goes through a crucible of some kind. Power is seen grappling with the aftereffects of her convoy accidentally killing a boy in Cameroon. Rhodes faces an unflattering New York Times magazine story about him.
Obama, meanwhile, is kept at arm’s length but is revealing when he talks post-election about his hope that his influence can extend to young people who start movements or organizations because of his leadership. Immediate policy-overturns in the Trump era, he suggests, are less important in this light.
The most pointed moment (told as a day-after recap of a voluble meeting) is when Power stakes out ground in favor of military intervention in the escalating human rights crisis in Syria. (Power’s devotion to human rights above all else, including realpolitik, is one of the film’s numerous character nuggets.) Rhodes and the president disagree and it is of course their view that prevails.
Rhodes said in an interview with The Times that he does reflect on the Obama administration’s Syria approach, which became one of the most criticized of the 44th president’s foreign policy positions. But that reflection only goes so far.
“I certainly look back and wonder if there are things we could have done differently. But candidly, I don’t know if we’d done something differently how it would have turned out,” he said. “When you’re dealing with a multiplicity of factors, it’s hard to say if you did X, it would have led to Y. There’s a broader picture we still don’t know.”
One doesn’t need to be an Obama critic to raise questions about “The Final Year.” Painting the administration’s policy vis-a-vis other presidents’ as simply a matter of diplomatic engagement vs. military solutions, as the film often does, ignores plenty of the shades in between.
And very few of its scenes feel juicily behind the curtain. The high-level meetings can seem pro forma, when they are shown at all. (Barker said the administration was not given, nor did it seek to use, veto power over anything in the film besides the camera inadvertently capturing a screen or document of classified information.)
But if the film’s observational sections are light on substance, they make up for that with intimacy. One rarely gets to glimpse the White House from the inside, and Barker spends plenty of time behind the guarded walls.
There also is a fair amount of foreign policy insight. Rhodes admits, for instance, that the administration “didn’t figure out Russia quickly enough, and that Putin’s interests and Russia’s interests are not the same.”
With comments like “he carries around the human consequences of his decision-making,” said by Power, the film won’t be confused for a hard-hitting expose. That is OK, Barker said in the interview.
“We weren’t trying to make the ‘Frontline’ version of this movie, with talking heads criticizing Obama’s policy,” he noted. “That’s a worthy film too. But we wanted to show something different — that there are rational processes at the heart of the security machine,” and that the Obama administration “embodied the idea of cooperation and dialogue over military force.” (Obama has yet to see the film.)
Which brings it all back to the Donald Trump resonance. When the current president is seen later in the film, briefly, in news footage opposite Obama, it is a jarring moment, breaking the almost time machine-like spell the film had been casting.
That is Barker’s point too. This is, for all the reassurance some might find in an administration of such deliberativeness, the final year of Obama’s presidency and inevitably now part of the past.
Yet the events of the film also form, to use a favored Obama metaphor, a link in the chain. It’s one that perhaps doesn’t end before Trump, but certainly will continue after him.