'A Real Greek Tragedy': Inside the Last Days of Obama's Foreign Policy

Director Greg Barker talks about following Obama all over the globe while filming The Final Year.
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The Final Year obama film

Director Greg Barker's The Final Year takes the audience on a globetrotting tour with former President Barack Obama's foreign policy team over the course of 2016. Over its 90-minute running time, we follow Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, Secretary of State John Kerry, and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power to a dizzying array of locales as they work to solve the Syria Crisis, strengthen ties with China, and fight Boko Haram—while sometimes musing about the election chances of Donald Trump. We know from the beginning, of course, how the election is going to turn out, which introduces a dramatic irony that colors nearly every scene in the film.

Barker, a former director for the PBS series Frontline, has long focused on foreign policy in his work, from Manhunt, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, to Ghosts of Rwanda, about the Rwandan genocide, during which he met Power. Shot in real time but edited after the 2016 election, The Final Year gives us a look into the area of policy-making where the president has the most leeway, and the public often has the least insight.

Barker spoke on the phone with Pacific Standard to talk about what he's learned about diplomacy from making the documentary, why dissatisfaction with Obama's foreign policy was so widespread, and how his movie sometimes feels like a Greek tragedy.

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What was it like to negotiate access for this project? It's one thing to know Power or Rhodes, another to tell them you want to be a fly on the wall for a year.

Yeah, I just came across a picture from one of the first shooting days with Samantha. [I'm] talking to her in the lobby of the U.S. mission near the United Nations. I was telling her what we were going to do, and how we were going to do it, and the look on her face is just like: "Why did I sign up for this? What did I agree to?"

I said that I wanted to try to humanize what it's like inside the government. I think that struck a chord with Samantha and Ben in particular. Both of them have—when they suddenly found themselves in the Situation Room—felt these out-of-body experiences, like, "What am I doing here, I'm just a journalist or a writer."

The biggest challenge was proving that we could actually be in these rooms and not get in the way. We didn't use any lights, no set-ups, nothing, everything just happened. And that was important, because all of these people have very fast jobs.

One thing that's really rare among Obama's foreign policy team is how long-serving they were. Figures like Rice and Power, who were there in the first year, are still there in the last. Were their goals or their desires different in Year Seven than in Year Two?

Absolutely. I mean, I came to think of the film as like, a band movie.

Not Spinal Tap though.

Exactly, yeah! But there's a group of people who had been together for a decade, centered around the lead singer, with all their arguments and disagreements, but all trying to play, all trying to make music together. They know the band is breaking up, and then in the end there's this unexpected thing. Something happens ... and there are all the questions.

All of us have complicated relationships with our colleagues, particularly when you're spending 18 hours a day with them. This is a film not about any given policy but about this team that has disagreements and feels like they've accomplished something together, and then everything is called into question collectively. That's kind of how I started to see it. That was really when it started to come together for me.

You mention wanting to humanize them. I'm interested in how—as a journalist who obviously finds your subjects sympathetic—you humanize them with tipping over into hagiography?

Nobody wants to watch, and I certainly didn't want to make, a propaganda film. Whenever you deal with the government, that's always a risk. They're doing this because they want to open up government and all that, but they want to get their point of view across and they're trying to define their legacy.

And you also let them speak for themselves. There's no talking heads, no commentators offering either critical or sympathetic viewpoints. Why did you approach the material that way?

I used to make investigative films for Frontline, I made a dozen-some films for them, so I know what that version of this film looks like, and I just don't want to watch that anymore. I wanted to make a film that felt more experiential.

These people very much live inside a bubble—at one point, we thought we should call the film The Bubble, or The POTUS Bubble, because that's what they call it. But it is a kind of informational, social, logistical bubble that they're in, and I wanted to have the film live inside that bubble. Occasionally you hear these outside voices, like, you know, critiquing them on cable news, but they're really kind of distant, they're out there, they're outside the bubble. I felt like that was the most accurate way of conveying what it feels like inside that world. And I think if you think these guys are the greatest thing since sliced bread, you're going to find elements in the film that validate that point of view. If you think they're naïve, outplayed by the Russians, totally missed the rise of Trump, you're gonna find a lot of scenes to validate that as well. That's just how it felt from the inside.

I was particularly struck by the section with John Kerry after the Syrian cease-fire falls apart, in part because we bombed the Syrian army thinking they were ISIS. There's this moment where he very earnestly—and if you're a critic, naively—says, essentially, "Well, we apologize for the mistake of bombing them!" As if that is going to matter to anyone.

I love that whole scene. And preceding that, the moment with Ben Rhodes, and his team, and Ben's cursing [about the bombing of the Syrian army], and it's very raw. Kerry was very clear at the beginning of the year, saying that Syria was his top priority for 2016. And I think he was hoping that the year would end with some breakthrough, some kind of negotiated settlement that he would shepherd. And all of that evaporates in the space of that 24 hours or so, and you can just feel it.

That's one moment where there's a real Greek tragedy feel to watching this movie. If you watch the news, you know what's going to happen and they don't. Syria's not going to work out, the Russians were interfering in our election, Trump is going to get elected, their legacy is going to be destroyed.

Some people watch it and say, "Wow, they all seem so ignorant, you would never have had a film without Trump's election!" And I'm like: "Well, what would Titanic have been without the ship hitting the iceberg? It's constructed around that from the beginning!"

If you come from a theater background, you totally get it. We're watching this and you're just cringing, knowing that as these people go off into the world with these great ideals, it's all going to hit this massive train wreck. And I intentionally creep Trump in. He never speaks, and he appears about 35 minutes in, on an airport TV monitor. Because that's how it felt for them, at the time. He was just in the background; they were dismissing it.

You mentioned earlier that Obama and his team wanted to redefine America's role in the world. What was the redefinition they were seeking? And what was left unfinished?

Just my own perspective: Obama and his whole team grappled with this question of war and peace, and trying to recalibrate this institutional imperative to put the use of force on the table in order for America to have "credibility," particularly in some crisis in the Middle East. I think he just constitutionally found that it was against everything that really defined him as an individual, and he wanted to correct that.

But I think what they never quite resolved is how to implement that, when you've got an unfolding tragedy like Syria. What do you do, then, when you have this huge humanitarian tragedy? He would say, "Well, you can't intervene everywhere." Someone like Samantha might say, "Well, look at the refugee flow, the impact it's had on stability in Europe, the possible impact it had on Brexit, the ongoing effect on our election."

So how do you square this idea to not intervene everywhere with the idea that not taking action can also have unintended consequences? And I think there's no clear answer to that yet. If [Hillary] Clinton had come in—she had said that she would take more action, tougher action with Syria.

And of course, Obama's approach left a lot of people discontented. If you were on the right, you wanted a more bellicose approach to Iran, but a lot of Obama's voters were frustrated that we were still in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Did your subjects feel under siege in their bubble?

No. I would say they felt more misunderstood. They felt they were clear about what they were trying to achieve and were bending over backwards to try to explain, and were kind of cornered by the tendency of the news media to reduce things to a binary choice. One of the things that struck me was how little they watched television. Every day they'd get these readouts on their blackberries about what was said on the different shows, what the papers say, but there wasn't this obsession with, "What's on CNN and Fox that day?" So I think they felt that what Ben called "The Blob"—the foreign policy establishment—just never got it, and was never going to accept the way they saw the world.

You have a lot of background in this field; what surprised you other than how little they watched TV?

I think what really struck me was the pace. And that doesn't just mean these people are working hard and we should be grateful or feel sorry for them. We may care deeply about the Syria question, or the Iran nuclear deal. While these decisions are being made, they're inevitably grappling with maybe a dozen more decisions that have to be made the same day. And I think it must be incredibly hard to keep your focus. And I think we're seeing that now, with a president who is focus-challenged.

And who watches a lot more TV than his predecessor!

Yeah, like three hours a day of "Executive Time" to watch television!

It's very hard to keep your focus. All of us find this: If we're creative people, when do we find time to be creative? When do we find time to have strategic thinking and really ponder what we want to achieve? That's just part of the day-to-day. People in those [White House] jobs have that problem, but a hundred-fold. It's worth bearing in mind that when we critique our government—as we should—we should also just remember that these are people who have very limited time, and to critique, we need to exist in the world that they're inhabiting as much as possible, recognizing the complexity. Otherwise they'll just dismiss it.

So that's what I'm trying to do, with my broad body of work, is to give a sense of the nuance of how America engages with the world, and understand it from a human level, so we have a better sense of how it really feels from the inside. In the end, hopefully the film is an optimistic film that points a way through, and shows what's normal in the past and might be normal again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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