‘Be energized:’ Director Greg Barker on documenting the final year of Obama’s presidency

U.S. President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (not pictured) in New York September 25, 2014. With Obama from left are Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR47OI6
Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Greg Barker’s 2017 documentary “The Final Year” is a story of progress and setback, tragedy and triumph, war and peace. It’s a glimpse into a recent past — a once-tangible reality that now feels elusive and distant.

Set during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, this on-the-fly documentary chronicles the endeavors of Obama’s foreign policy team as America’s top diplomats work tirelessly to implement his international agenda.

The objectives? Restore ties with Cuba. Negotiate a ceasefire in Syria. Solidify the Iran nuclear deal. Tackle climate change through the Paris Agreement. Promote human rights.

The film is carried by its core characters: the perceptive, empathetic UN Ambassador Samantha Power travels around the world with a commitment to humanitarianism informed by her immigrant background, experiences as a war correspondent and academic study of genocide.

Secretary of State John Kerry, a self-proclaimed optimist at heart, offers the gravitas expected of an elder statesman as he visits melting glaciers in Greenland and works to secure the Iran deal. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, is a skilled speechwriter and negotiator, though hubristic and fiercely loyal to the Obama doctrine, sometimes to a fault. Obama makes thoughtful impromptu appearances throughout.

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Magnolia Pictures / Courtesy

 

For each of the main players, there’s a sense of urgency in their final year of work — an understanding that terms are time-sensitive and legacies are built more on execution than mere vision. As the year ticks on, urgency becomes not about completing the Obama checklist before passing the baton to the presumed president Hillary Clinton, but about America’s choice to place a fragile and meticulously organized international order into the custody of an unhinged reality TV star.

For its broad interest in Obama-era policies, “The Final Year” is not about political analysis or comparative history, though.

And it doesn’t try to be.

While the film can come off as an ode to Obama — a nostalgic and distinguished send off to a president’s closing chapter — here’s the thing: That’s OK.

Because at its core, “The Final Year” is a film about people. It’s a journey through the lives and experiences of civil servants at the highest levels of government. It’s a window into what their lives are like — how they process and make decisions, how the gears of bureaucracy grind each day, what the mental and emotional tugs and toll of negotiation and international strategy feel like and how shared values can bind human beings together in the name of collective mission and purpose.

History books will ultimately come to tell what Obama’s presidency meant for the world and where his legacy fits within his presidential cohort. For now, “The Final Year” offers a captivating, fleeting look at how good and dedicated people did their best to make the world a better place. That’s something to admire.

“There’s a lot of banter that he has. He has a way of making people feel very relaxed.”

— Greg Barker

The Daily Californian: How did you gain such tremendous access to film at the White House and travel to over 20 countries with Obama’s foreign policy team?

Greg Barker: It was a process, as you would imagine. I approached the administration two and a half years ago, and I knew (UN Ambassador) Samantha Power from a previous project about the Rwandan genocide that I did in 2004. I was able to get a meeting and went and pitched the idea to her: Create a documentary to capture the human dynamics inside the halls of power, particularly in diplomacy, and make it about people who are in power and on their way out.

She was intrigued. The bureaucracy was completely opposed to it but eventually we worked through it. Then, I went to see Ben Rhodes at the White House, the State Department people, and then ultimately the president, who signed off on it.

DC: The film showed how President Obama reflects on and deeply values the lessons of history. He spoke about how he likes to visit ancient sites like Athens to understand how the arc of history informs modern day. For this reason, a meaningful thread in the film was the idea of America facing its past and learning from it — for example, with Obama restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima, or visiting Laos. Could you speak to this?

GB: From a purely personal level, particularly the visit to Hiroshima, it was totally unforgettable and deeply moving. The speech Obama gave there, which he largely wrote himself, was really a meditation on the nature of war and how closely linked war is to our very humanity — how we’ve been fighting each other since our earliest days. And yet, what does that mean in this age, now where we have the capability to destroy our entire species?

President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade of the White House with Secretary of State John Kerry following a working lunch with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, March 24, 2015.

Pete Souza / Magnolia Pictures / Courtesy

 

That scene in particular, I never imagined that we’d be releasing the film in an age where we’d all be contemplating nuclear war again. It just seemed like there Obama was reckoning with the past as opposed to speaking to the present and yet, now, one of the reasons that scene was so powerful was because (nuclear war) is on people’s minds again.

 “I never imagined that we’d be releasing the film in an age where we’d all be contemplating nuclear war again.”

— Greg Barker

(Just Thursday, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock from two and a half minutes in 2017 to two minutes until midnight. This is the closest the clock has ever been since the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was underway in 1953.)

DC: Obviously, we’ve seen a huge drop in respect for American leadership abroad since Donald Trump’s election. Given your extensive travels with American diplomats abroad, can you describe how America was generally viewed from a global lens?

GB: I really saw firsthand how well regarded America was around the world — not just politically but in terms of our soft power — and ultimately how strong it is, but also how fragile it can be when our foreign policy is seen as divisive. For me, one of the powerful aspects of the Obama presidency was his desire to reset America’s standing in the world. I think a lot of that comes from his own personal background; he had an international background, he spent a lot of his childhood in Indonesia, and I think he sees the world in a pretty nuanced way.

So I think by the end of the Obama presidency, when we were filming, America was pretty widely respected in the world. That doesn’t mean there aren’t policy differences, of course, but the application of American diplomacy, as well as soft power and military power, was a force to be reckoned with.

You could tell, when Obama would go to Laos or when we were with Ben (Rhodes) in Myanmar and he was meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi a year and a half or so ago and pressing buttons by talking about the human rights situation there, that we were at least listened to. Now, the contrast — the way we’re withdrawn (in the world) — is really sort of stunning and actually goes against the approach to foreign policy that has been in place since World War II. That’s really concerning and damaging to our credibility.

“The way we’re withdrawn (in the world) — is really sort of stunning and actually goes against the approach to foreign policy that has been in place since World War II. “

— Greg Barker

DC: Did people in other countries express interest in the looming 2016 election?

GB: It came up all the time. People were asking about Trump. As the year went on and he got the Republican nomination, people were saying, “What does this mean? What does this tell us about America?”

In terms of the America that people interact with and know culturally and politically, Donald Trump was an aberration — an outlier. And the idea that he could become president? People found that really confusing. It just didn’t fit with their interactions with and sense of America in the world.

DC: The film explores some of the contention that emerges within the administration on issues like Syria, with Ambassador Power advocating greater U.S. intervention in the name of human rights while the president remained reluctant. Though ultimately administrations have to come out with cohesive policies, how are diverse voices managed and disagreements resolved? At the end of the day, how would President Obama make a decision?

GB: He was very deliberative. Almost loyally, in a way.

He made a point of calling on everybody in a room. Even midlevel staff who were sitting up against the walls of the meeting rooms. He would call out, “Who’s this person? What do you think?” especially if they were new, maybe a regional expert in a particular meeting who was not normally in that environment.

He wanted robust debate amongst his team; he encouraged that. Then he would go away and think about it in a scholarly way and come back with a decision. That’s how he made the decision on the red line in Syria — the decision not to act at that moment.

I think it’s based on the complex nature of his personality. As a campaigner he was incredible as this deeply inspiring individual with these amazing stump speeches, and what we as a country didn’t really appreciate until he got into power was he was also this constitutional law professor in a very considered way.

“He made a point of calling on everybody in a room. Even midlevel staff who were sitting up against the walls of the meeting rooms.”

— Greg Barker

DC: In so many ways, the Obama era was one for young people: they organized to elect him, and he incorporated many of them into his administration. What would you hope that young generations seeing this movie take away about public service and leadership?

GB: I was really inspired by the dedication of the careers of foreign service officers and civil servants who you see in the background throughout the film. A lot of these people could be making more money elsewhere, but they’re really doing this because they believe in the mission: Let’s serve our country — let’s make the world a better place. And they generally want to serve any administration. To see these people now being denigrated is painful.

For young people, be energized; as depressing as this particular moment might be, you can get involved and make a difference. Ultimately, these are just people (Power, Kerry, Rhodes, Obama) — that’s what I tried to show. They have kids; they’re ordinary people who end up in these jobs and can actually try to get stuff done. If we’re going to rebuild our diplomatic service and these institutions that this current administration is trying to dismantle, it’s going to take passionate people who go in there and make it right again.

President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops following his remarks at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012.

Pete Souza / Magnolia Pictures / Courtesy

 

You don’t solve every problem. But the very act of showing up, like Power going to camp for Boko Haram refugees (in Cameroon), actually makes a difference. Sometimes there’s a feeling of helplessness when somebody’s right in front of you saying “Boko Haram killed my whole family” and you can’t help that person. But the very act of being there to listen and focus the whole bureaucracy on that problem does have tangible impact. I’ve seen it up close.

And, what Samantha (Power) says is that now is a really good time to take the foreign service exam.

Because this president is going to pass at some point — whether it’s 3 years or 7 — if you go and you take your exam, do your tours of duties stamping visas, then suddenly you’re going to be part of this process of rebuilding our diplomatic infrastructure. I know people in the State Department who are staying — a lot of people are moving out, sadly — but (they’re staying) because they say “we’re going to stick through this and be part of rebuilding.”

“Be energized; as depressing as this particular moment might be, you can get involved and make a difference. Ultimately, these are just people (Power, Kerry, Rhodes, Obama) — that’s what I tried to show.”

— Greg Barker

DC: For our “West Wing” fans out there (or anyone who wants to understand where Donald Trump watches TV everyday), can you briefly describe what filming at the White House was like?

GB: The West Wing is where the most senior staff work. It’s tiny. The Oval Office is beautiful, the chief of staff has a nice office, the national security adviser has a nice corner office. Most other people are in the basement that’s dark, cramped, windowless and has low ceilings. So it’s really small — the challenge for us was how to blend in. We weren’t part of the normal press corps, so we were hanging out in the lobby right outside the Situation Room, right down the hall from the Oval Office, and people are walking past and we kind of just had to get out of the way.

Really, (the space) is like a submarine. The canteen is actually run by the Navy (they call it the Mess) because it feels like you’re in a ship in this very small kitchen right outside the Situation Room. You can easily see how you could drive your coworkers crazy because you’re on top of each other all the time, but yet you’re in the White House making all these important decisions part of this amazing process. Those jobs are ultimately inspiring, and most people in those positions are awed by the responsibility they find on their shoulders.

DC: To end on a light note, I was hoping you might be able to share a little story about an interaction you had with the president that was memorable and not in the film?

GB: I didn’t want to have him in a formal setting — a sit-down interview — because he’s a practiced politician; they go on a certain mode. So a lot of the times we were interacting with him was just off-the-cuff behind the scenes. There’s a lot of banter that he has. He has a way of making people feel very relaxed.

One thing that pops in my head is a scene near the end when he’s in Greece and giving his speechwriter Ben a hard time because he left an “r” out of the pronunciation (of a Greek word).

The backstory of that is he had sent (his staffers) extensive rewrites — handwritten notes 90 minutes before that speech. And his handwritten changes were all over it, including a massive restructuring of the entire speech. With 90 minutes to go, (staffers) are literally running around backstage trying to find a place to print this and get a teleprompter. They pull it off, and yet (Obama) gives them a hard time for missing an “r.” Come on!

The Final Year is currently playing at select theaters, including Shattuck Cinemas.

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.

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