A stitch in time

Documentary captures dramatic ‘tick-tock’ of Obama administration’s last days

Starring Obama, Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes, Greg Barker’s ‘The Final Year’ is ‘a campaign film in reverse’ about a presidential team haunted by Syria as it leaves office

'The Final Year' follows the Obama administration's last attempt to shape world affairs. (Magnolia Pictures)
'The Final Year' follows the Obama administration's last attempt to shape world affairs. (Magnolia Pictures)

For those tired of watching reruns of “The West Wing,” there’s a new political thriller out — and it just so happens to be real.

The recently released documentary “The Final Year” is the story of the Obama administration’s final 12 months in office as told by former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy team.

Leading roles are played by Obama administration stars. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, along with Secretary of State John Kerry — and the president himself — all race against the clock to broker a deal with Iran, negotiate a climate accord in Paris and find a solution to the Syrian crisis, among the other issues on their diplomatic agenda.

Filmmaker Greg Barker (courtesy)

It’s a fast-paced 90-minute experiential documentary giving viewers an intimate if not overly nostalgic look inside the daily grind of the world’s most powerful figures.

For the individuals portrayed in the documentary, “The Final Year” was intended to solidify Obama’s foreign policy legacy, but President Donald Trump’s ultimate victory leaves the Obama team more stunned than assured.

“We tried to change the ending but we couldn’t do it,” joked director Greg Barker in an interview with The Times of Israel on his time filming the Obama administration and why his initial leap of faith paid off.

“I just had a hunch or a feeling that it might be possible to make something like a campaign film in reverse about an administration leaving office,” Barker said. “It has a narrative, a built-in ticking clock.”

The filmmaker originally pitched the idea to Power, whom he had worked with on a previous project, and then Rhodes, who hesitantly signed off as well. Barker ultimately received remarkable access into the inner lives and conversations of the powerful decision makers.

“Imagine working with the same people for a decade in this intense environment around the lead singer who they all love but at times drives them crazy and lets them down,” Barker said of the team.

In the film, Rhodes talks about the early idealism of Obama’s initial foreign policy experts: “[It] felt very much like a pickup [basketball] team,” he said.

“Samantha [Power] gets very excited and we’re talking about these ideas, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is great. We’re going to change the world.’”

But by the fourth quarter of Obama’s final term, the glamour of their vision had succumbed to the political reality of the office.

Former president Barack Obama meets with his foreign policy team during his final year in office. (Magnolia Pictures)

The film moves swiftly through sequences of drama between the characters as Power’s humanitarian-interventionalist approach to foreign policy confronts the political pragmatism of Rhodes, the wonkish foreign policy guru often noted for his “mind-meld” with the president. It was Rhodes who led US negotiations with Cuba and who is credited with selling the Iran nuclear deal.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to former president Barack Obama, pushed Obama’s foreign policy agenda to the media. (Magnolia Pictures)

In the film, Rhodes reckons with the backlash from the publication of a New York Times Magazine piece which quotes him mocking the Washington press corp for so gullibly re-selling the administration’s version of the controversial deal. The film is Rhodes’s sort-of attempt to humanize himself and his position in the administration.

Power seems more comfortable in front of the camera as it follows her from brokering a deal with her son about an after-school doughnut, to advocating for intervention in Syria at the UN.

Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the United Nations Security Council, after the council voted on condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Friday, December 23, 2016. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

At one point in the film, Power breathlessly corners the Saudi ambassador on the street to convince him to check out a UN exhibit featuring a virtual reality tour of a Syrian refugee camp.

“Seriously, if you do nothing else I ever ask you to do, just do this,” Power pleads.

The encounter is largely symbolic of Power’s continued attempt to move her own government and the rest of the world to act on Syria.

One country that is not mentioned in regards to Syria or at all in the film, is Israel.

According to Barker, “Had we made the film a few years earlier when Kerry was doing his thing and trying to make some sort of a settlement [between the Israelis and Palestinians], that would have been obviously at the core of it. But by the last year they were not expecting any breakthrough in regards to Israel and the film reflects that.”

“As a filmmaker,” he said, “You have to make a choice about where the narrative focus is in a documentary that’s really made for a general audience. It’s very hard to convey enough expositions that people can understand what’s going on and [we were able to do that] with the Syria ‘tick-tock.'”

As viewers already know, Power never prevails on the president to intervene forcefully in the humanitarian crisis in Syria once the May 2016 talks in Vienna failed to broker a lasting deal with the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad.

Migrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija on February 23, 2016. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP)

Barker said that Power now believes that the Obama administration’s failure to take definitive action in Syria prompted a domino-effect of world events.

“[Power] will say that you can make the case that without the Syria tragedy and the outflow of refugees, you may well not have had Brexit in the UK, you may well not have had Trump without this fear of ‘The Other’ which was perpetrated by a million refugees flowing into Europe,” Barker said.

“She’ll make the case that the world could be a very different place [if not for the Syria crisis],” he added.

Still, at the time, Power had no idea what was coming. On election night, the camera captures a horrified Rhodes and Power watching the election of President Donald Trump. Rhodes, the one never lacking in spin, can’t form a sentence.

The legacy that the Obama administration attempted to shape seems to come to a disastrous halt, yet Obama, portrayed as disconnected from the mood around him, takes a long view of events by the film’s end.

“History really doesn’t follow a straight line. It zigs and zags, but the trend lines ultimately will be in the direction of a less violent, more empathetic, more generous world. And that requires individuals fighting for that future,” the former president tells the camera.

Obama portrays his own foreign policy failures and Trump’s subsequent election as blips in a long race towards advancement. But back in the present day, Barker said the rest of the team is still processing their time in office, particularly their handling of Syria, and how to move forward.

“Obama made the choices he made. But ultimately what they’re asking themselves is if there’s something else they could have done on the ground,” he said. “They’re going to ask themselves these questions for the rest of their lives.”

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