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The 2016 Election Totally Changed Obama Doc The Final Year

Greg Barker Photo: Getty Images

For a significant portion of the United States, Greg Barker’s The Final Year will be a challenging watch. Not because of its form — it’s a relatively straightforward bit of documentary filmmaking — but because the content is an emotional hurdle. In 2016, Barker and his crew followed a few key members of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, national security adviser Susan Rice, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes, and Obama himself. Over the course of the movie, we see them globe-trot and strategize, attempting to solidify their legacy. Of course, they assumed they didn’t have to do that much protecting of said legacy, given that friendly faces would follow them in the next presidential term.

Well, so much for that. Though the documentation of the team’s trips and conversations is interesting, the most gripping scenes first involve them — especially Rhodes — dismissing the notion that Hillary Clinton could lose, then involve them reckoning with the outcome of the election. We caught up with Barker to talk about why the movie doesn’t address the drone war or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how his approach had to change after November 2016, and what it’s like to screen it for pro-Trump audiences.

Would you say there was a hubris about the people you were interviewing, when it came to the fact that they assumed Hillary was going to win in 2016?
It was interesting. I’d known Samantha Power for years. I did a film about Rwanda ages ago. So we weren’t close friends, but I knew her. And you know, I think inevitably, those jobs sort of create a certain amount of hubris. Because you have access to so much information that the rest of us don’t. I mean, they’re in a bubble. They’re in an information bubble, a security bubble. It’s really hard, even with the best intentions, to break out of that. And so, yeah, I think it was a kind of a hubris, arrogance.

Also, this is the foreign policy team, so, I mean, Ben [Rhodes] was one of few people in the White House who could talk to the campaign as well — the Hillary campaign, sort of legally. So he would have his finger on both sides. But generally, like [John] Kerry and Samantha Power, they’re just doing their job. They’re so busy. The election is literally in the background. They assume she’s going to win, but they’re not going through the poll numbers. So they’re reading all the news that we’re reading. And like, okay, you know she’s going to win.

But on the flip side of that, Obama said to his team at the beginning of the year, “You’ve got to act as if somebody is coming in who’s going to be totally opposed to our agenda, and try to get as much as you can get done in this last year. Because we just don’t know.” And, you know, he had had differences with Hillary Clinton, obviously. So her agenda was not going to be exactly his agenda. So I think there was kind of maybe a little bit of a naïveté, but also this sense that they’re just focused on what they’re doing, assuming that this other thing, the election, is going to go a certain way. And then it doesn’t. Dramatically, it’s incredibly powerful because then everything that they’ve been trying to achieve seems to be called into question, and in jeopardy.

Now, in retrospect, because they locked in … like the Paris Accord, even if the U.S. pulls out, it’s still an international treaty which is going to endure whether the U.S. is inside or out. So it’s not like their entire legacy now has completely been dismantled. Parts of it have been. But I think at that time, in the moment, of course they were totally distraught.

What’s the response people usually give you after they’ve seen the movie? Open weeping about what’s been lost?
It’s really interesting. The audiences are very different. We’ve screened it probably a dozen times or so, something like that, at festivals and things. Sometimes it’s hope and optimism, and people feel energized. Other times it’s total despair and they’re kind of like, What do we do now? We miss these people. It totally depends. And then, you know, if you’re a Trump supporter, you’re just like, These people were idiots, we’re glad they’re gone. So it’s a mix of …

You’ve screened it for Trump supporters?
Okay, we didn’t have an official screening for Trump supporters. But we were at the Savannah Film Festival and some others, and I think there’s a mix of people in some of these rooms. But yeah, I’ve never made a film that, just because of the moment that we’re living in, speaks so immediately to people’s experiences today, through recent history. So there’s two narratives when people watch it. There’s the film, The Final Year. And then there’s the narrative in our heads of, What’s going on in the news today? And so I find when I watch it, personally, I have different experiences based on, you know, are we threatening war with North Korea? If so, suddenly the Hiroshima sequence — here’s the president going to Hiroshima for the first time ever, and isn’t that amazing? It was an extraordinary moment. But I never thought it would then be a part of a film that’s coming out in the context of a threat of nuclear war hanging over [us]. Those little moments are peppered throughout the film. So people come out of it feeling up, down, however. It’s dependent on their own mood. But it’s speaking directly to the moment that we’re in, by contrasting with this kind of recent history that now seems like a decade ago. Or 10,000 years ago. [Laughs.]

You mentioned that you weren’t expecting the Hiroshima visit to have this particular resonance now. I guess that gets at the big question which is, what did you think this movie was going to be when it started out? And how did that change, and when did that change?
Well, I mean, starting out, the first meetings about it were two-and-a-half years ago. Summer of 2015. We started filming in September 2015 with Samantha Power here in New York. And then by the beginning of January 2016, we were fully up and running. Props to the bureaucracy. And I thought it would be a film about a group of people who had come — almost like a band movie — people who come together around one guy, the lead singer, who were trying to get things done. [They] had sort of achieved a certain amount, controversially in some cases. And they were rushing to get more done and lock in their legacy with the ticking clock, and were then going to, we thought, going to hand it over to friends. But I thought there would be this internal, inevitable tension of wrapping up, trying to get stuff done, with the end of their term hanging over their heads.

But as the year went on, it became clear that it was becoming more a film about the nature of our democracy, and how we were seen in the world was at stake. Now, everybody thought that the election would go in a different way. And in fact, the scene near the end, where Obama goes to Greece, was going to be … That trip was planned before the election. But he was going to speak outside on the steps of the Parthenon and give a speech about the nature of democracy and point a finger at Russia saying, “Don’t mess with our democracy.” And a lot of what we later learned about Russian interference in the election was going to come out then. So I think it would have been a film about how close we came to electing, perhaps, an authoritarian leader. That’s what they were going to talk about.

But it’s almost … You know, I cut the whole film after the election. We were assembling scenes along the way. So by the time I actually made the movie, it was like, what would the Titanic be without hitting the iceberg? It’s all constructive with knowing that the iceberg is there and the disaster comes. The whole film is designed to play that way. They kind of totally missed this thing. They didn’t see it coming. And so, I mean, we all obviously know what happens. And the characters in the movie don’t. I mean, I cut it that way. That’s intentional. So it’s hard for me to say what the film would have been, because I never actually had a film. I had to go reedit. I was just assembling footage and then … But I had a feeling of what it would have been like.

At what point did a switch flip and did you start to think, maybe Trump is an actual threat?
It’s actually the way it’s sort of seen in the film. It’s like the first time we see him in the film is when he’s nominated. And I was in an airport lounge. I think it was in Laos or Burma with Ben Rhodes. You know, just seeing him onscreen and thinking, Holy shit, he’s actually the Republican nominee. I mean, I kind of knew it was gonna happen, but there he is. He’s the nominee. And it’s like, Well, if he’s the nominee, he could win. And then seeing Ben’s sort of glib response to those exchange students like, “No, he’s not gonna win.” And then, I guess it was mid-September, we were in White House and the polls in Florida were getting kind of close. And then I asked Ben, I was like, “Are you worried? Because everything you’ve accomplished is in jeopardy.” He’s like, “No, it’s fine.”

And I later asked him, “Seriously, are you guys worried or not?” He’s like, “No, no. We’ve got this.” I actually, as it happens, knew some mutual friends who were working on the Clinton campaign that were totally sure they had this thing in the bag. I don’t pretend to have any insight in that. I mean, on the election night, I went to Samantha Power’s apartment, thinking that we were just going to film a scene of triumph.

Of course, when it went the other way, I was shocked like all of us. But as a filmmaker, it was great just to be there in that room filming. And the cameraman did an incredible job framing these beautiful shots without really anybody even thinking he’s there. I mean, you make films and they go on these journeys of vérité experiential documentaries, hoping for moments like that. I mean, I wasn’t hoping that Trump won. But you kind of want to be in rooms like that when things happen. So it was extraordinary. Samantha asked me on the night. “What does this mean for your documentary?” I said, “I think it just got a lot more important.”

And you got that amazing scene with Rhodes on election night where he can’t put a sentence together. It’s like a David Mamet scene, almost: all the little clipped bits of sentences.
Yeah. I mean, it was extraordinary, actually. I was filming it. I’m just sort of … now I’m speechless myself. I just remembered the moment. I actually filmed that myself with a little camera, with a soundman. As a filmmaker, again, it’s like, I felt for Ben. And yet I knew what we were getting at that moment was kind of golden material for a film. And he knew it too, I think, afterwards. I think he called somebody on his team and was like, “I did this. Yeah, I talked to Greg again. There was a little bit where I kind of like didn’t know what to say.” But that’s genuinely how he felt. By being around, by that point, for over a year, you just develop this comfort with people. And so we were able to capture these authentic moments.

What were the parameters of what you were allowed to do with these folks? I assume there was a lot of restriction.
Yeah. I mean, I knew this going in. There was no editorial control [on the administration’s part]. Ben kind of set the tone through the whole administration in terms of, this project has the support of White House and the president, who signed off on it in an Oval Office meeting. That that then filters through the bureaucracy. He was very explicit: “We don’t want any editorial control.” They’re savvy enough to know that they’re not going to expect that. And we would never give it to them.

The biggest restriction was security. They wanted to make sure we never filmed anything that was classified. But on the flip side, legally, I don’t have a security clearance, so they can’t have anything classified even in my presence. Even like an open binder. You can’t actually have a binder in a room when somebody is there. So when you walk in, basically you can’t just barge into people’s offices. They all have two computer screens: a declassified and a classified screen. So when you walk in, the classified screen has to be turned off, and anything classified that might be on the table, has to have usually it’s like a red piece of paper over it. It’s things like that. You can’t just barge into offices.

And in the end, I think the first time we filmed in Samantha Power’s office there was State Department security there. They wanted to watch the feed to make sure we didn’t show her secure teleconference equipment. Which, frankly, looks like an iSight camera from 2005. [Laughs.] We’re not interested in showing that. Once they realized that wasn’t what we were about, everything just kind of got more relaxed.

What stuff did you want to talk about with them, but couldn’t? The absence of the drone war is conspicuous.
Yeah. I mean, the drones are all … The whole thing is classified. I mean, the Syria debates. You know, what are we really going to do in Syria. I would have loved to film those detailed discussions and debates about it. They weren’t going to let us. Because all that stuff happens in the Situation Room, they weren’t going to let us do that. But, you know, because I’d done a previous project about the CIA and the hunt for bin Laden, I’m kind of used to operating in these kind of worlds. I didn’t want to film to be a foreign-policy film or a film about these issues. I wanted it to be an experiential film about the emotions at play in these jobs during what I thought would be a momentous year. Which, it turns out, it was. So, facts are classified, emotions are not. And so I focused on the emotions, and then got what we could. And we pushed boundaries and got stuff that I think they didn’t expect to reveal. I think as the memoirs come out, we’re going to hear more about the very kind of pointed debates over Syria and other things that were going on. We’ll learn more about all that kind of detailed stuff later. But this is a record of what it was like at the time. And that was very intentional from the outset. Just, we’re ending when they leave office.

This is a hard thing to encapsulate, but what did you make of Obama, from interviewing him? What did you walk away from that you didn’t know about him beforehand?
He’s very comfortable in his own skin. Just physically, very relaxed around people. He’s obviously very charismatic and engaging with people when he wants to be. He’s kind of aloof. And he’s, I think, very self-contained. I think he’s very considered, very logical. Perhaps to a fault, you know. And incredibly articulate. I spent a fair amount of time with him. I did not want to interview him in, like, the Oval Office, or the Roosevelt Room, where people normally do TV interviews. I didn’t want to do any of that, because they’re so used to those kinds of settings. I wanted to be more spontaneous, kind of in the field.

I mean, he’s a very impressive man. A very impressive, reserved, articulate, incredibly intelligent intellectual. But incredibly charismatic. And you can see him just turn it on. I mean, you kind of see it in the film. Backstage he sounded like, okay, let’s do this. And he goes onto the stage and then he’s like Barack Obama, the candidate. I mean, he doesn’t have to be that. I think he’s also Barack Obama, the constitutional scholar, too. And I think of Barack Obama, the writer. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see what his memoir is like, because he’s probably arguably one of the best writers to be president.

It’s basically him and Teddy Roosevelt.
Exactly. Yeah. But I mean, I would suspect he feels the burden of that. Because, you know, his memoir should be at a different level than other presidential memoirs because of his writing ability. So there’s all of that stuff. He’s a complicated guy.

Was there stuff that you filmed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that didn’t end up in the final cut?
I mean, some. At the very end, they sort of did the thing at the UN, which was behind the scenes there was lots of stuff going on with the Trump people talking to Netanyahu and all that. We didn’t get enough of that for me to, because I knew how complicated it was, to really flesh it out at the end of the film. By that point in the presidency, I think they’d … I won’t say “given up,” but they weren’t looking for a solution. If we had been filming with Kerry in his first year as secretary of state, that was his big push. And then he failed there. So it’s really a question of what were their priorities in that period. And that, I think it’s safe to say, was not a problem they were thinking they were going to solve in their last year.

If you wanted people to walk away with one thing from the film, what do you want them to walk away with?
Intellectually, I would say a sense of the humanity at the core of our government that should be there. And a sense that this is what normal looks like. And should look like. And frankly, as far as it looked, across parties, across administrations, since the Second World War. Hopefully, we can get back there again. I also think that I came away with a sense of optimism about not just how our government should function, but what our country stands for, frankly. Just because we’re going through a tough time, doesn’t mean that that has to continue. You can see it.

And it was very interesting to see Obama’s reaction to the election, and the way he was talking to his staff. I don’t know what he was saying in his most private moments, to Michelle [Obama] and all that. But what he says in that film is consistent with everything I’ve heard about what he was saying to people privately. You know, his top staff. Like, “This is the way history works. Don’t expect to win any battle. Stay engaged, look at the long view, and stay optimistic.” I mean, that is not where a lot of people were emotionally right after the election, but that’s where he was, literally that night and the morning after. And that’s, just as a message on how to get through life, is pretty inspiring. And I think people can, hopefully, take away some of that hope and kind of sense that there’s a lot to do, but let’s just get on with it and not despair.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The 2016 Election Totally Changed Obama Doc The Final Year