The director who captured President Obama’s final year in office talks about trust, gossip, and the nobility of public service.
As I sat down with Greg Barker, director of the new documentary The Final Year about President Obama’s final year, most headlines coming out of the political world centered around Michael Wolff’s salacious chronicle of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury. Barker was quick to distance his work from that tome – “Wolff’s book – he’s talking to people off the record, where they think it might be off the record, or they’re on background, and saying they’ll do whatever it takes” – but the documentary serves a similar function in taking us deep within the innermost workings of the executive branch. (And it’s a little easier to do ethical access journalism when everyone is on camera.)
Irrespective of one’s own political leanings, The Final Year provides an illuminating look into the Obama foreign policy team as they wrap up their diplomatic efforts prior to the impending regime change. It’s not an explicitly activist documentary, but the thoughtfulness and commitment of everyone seen on screen certainly speaks for itself in 2018. “I think – whether it was right or wrong or not – what struck me looking at it was the consistency of his message,” said Barker when asked what he learned about the Obama administration by filming inside of it. “Particularly with regard to the use of military force, questions of war and peace, which really defined him as a national figure at the get-go – his opposition to the Iraq War, he wouldn’t have been president without that. And he, if you go back and look at his first speech at the 2003 [sic] national convention all the way through to his Nobel Prize speech, it’s pretty much the same message that we have to look at diplomacy, not just use the threat of military force as the default in complex foreign policy issues.”
Arriving at this realization in the documentary was far from a foregone conclusion. HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, dubbed “The Grand Dame of Documentary” by the New York Times, asked Barker if he knew anything would actually happen if she commissioned his team to tail the Obama team. He replied, “We don’t!” But Barker had a hunch, and he turned out to be right. “Historically, big things tend to happen in the last year of a two-term presidency, particularly internationally. So I just thought if we were around enough, things would happen […] I just had a feeling that, whatever you think of him, it’s a historic presidency, and he really did try to remake America’s position in the world, so that last year was inevitably going to be full of stuff.”
Though The Final Year is not a film about diplomacy as an idea or a concept, it almost can’t help but feel that way given that Barker follows figures so committed to its mission – Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – that they embody and personify it. Each receives thoughtful, honest treatment as the documentary observes their work. They become more than just the talking heads on Sunday shows. In The Final Year, they are people, although Barker didn’t see it that way. “I’m making a movie, I’m a filmmaker and a storyteller, so yes, I think of them as characters in a film,” he professed.
Tellingly, Barker thought of them as something more just political operatives. The goal was not to simply lay out 2016 in a rote, chronological fashion. “It’s really a film about … you know … I began to think of it as almost like a band movie,” he admitted. “This cast of characters has been together around the lead singer for a decade. The band is breaking up. They have to then rush to get out the last album, and while they’re doing that, the X-factor. They’re on the Titanic which hits the iceberg, and they’ve then got to deal with that.”
Though Power has since referred to The Final Year “a horror film in slow motion,” don’t expect too much in the way of overloaded dramatic irony in the documentary. Barker, utilizing his access and feeding on the trust of his subjects, allows the actions and words of the administration to speak for themselves. Their synchronicity stands out, and that’s by design. “The characters are constantly playing off each other,” Barker noted, “finishing each other’s sentences.”
How these undertakings feed into the election of a man whose values and priorities for international relations are often anathema to President Obama is a matter for the pundits and historians to decide. Away from the framing of wins, losses and optics, the strategic goals of the presidency come squarely into focus. “It’s not a film about policy or any one given trip,” Barker acknowledgedg. “It’s this experience of this team that had come together with a mission around this one guy. They faced these challenges with a ticking clock to try to get a lot done in the last year to cement their legacy, and then everything is turned upside down by the unexpected election.”
Barker described the realization that helped orient his thinking of how to construct the film:
At one point, I remember saying to Ben Rhodes, I was looking at the choices they were making about how they were using their time going to Vietnam, going to Hiroshima, going to Laos, “I think you’re actually talking about Syria here.” He’s like, “You’re right. We are really trying to make clear the questions he’s grappled with his whole presidency and his whole public career. The questions of when do we fight, when do we not and trying to redefine how America uses the threat of force.” And everything kind of slid into place in terms of what I had been thinking about what his core message was.
Really, the film, up until the election, Obama’s role in it really centers around this question of when do we fight and when do we not. It plays out most starkly when it comes to Syria, but really, that’s why he went to Hiroshima – to talk about the inherent tragedy of war. And he goes to Laos to talk about the long-term effects of war, all of which you could argue was trying to justify the mistakes they made in Syria. Or, they might say, reorient how we think about complex problems like that. We can’t just have simple solutions where you fire some cruise missiles and it’s like, “Ok, we’ve done something!” Because that doesn’t actually solve problems. That’s what they would say.
The Final Year is not the kind of political documentary that ends with title cards directing the viewer to a website or encouraging specific actions, yet Barker reported that simply letting Obama’s team share their story is motivating audiences anyways. The day after a screening at Harvard, a senior student wrote the filmmaker to say, “Everyone was pushing me to go into business, but I’ve always wanted to do diplomacy, and I’m now going to take the foreign service exam because of this film.”
“There is –” Barker pauses. “This sounds kind of corny – a kind of nobility to public service. That doesn’t mean it can’t be frustrating and all that, but get involved is the message.”