There was a time in America when an immigrant was allowed to hold a key position in U.S. foreign policy, a time when another woman—wearing a hijab—was granted daily access to classified information in the White House.
That time was two years ago.
Just how dramatically American political norms have changed since President Obama left office becomes apparent in the HBO documentary The Final Year, directed by Greg Barker. The film, now in contention for Emmy nominations, tracks the last 12 months of Obama’s term.
“Personally it was extraordinary to see the government at work at that level, up close,” Barker tells Deadline. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a professional experience that parallels what it was like to make that film.”
Barker persuaded some key players in the administration to participate in The Final Year: Secretary of State John Kerry; National Security Advisor Susan Rice; Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Ben Rhodes, deputy National Security Advisor and a vital Obama aide.
“That was a big ask. Because these people, just by the nature of their jobs, they tend to be very controlled and careful with what they say publicly,” Barker admits. “There was the challenge of just getting cameras into these places, that was one thing. That was hard. But harder really was to try to get just the emotional authenticity that any documentary lives and dies on…Trying to get people to loosen up and talk about their internal differences and show their real personalities.”
Ambassador Power, in particular, proved willing to offer glimpses of her personal side—raising two young children while conducting international diplomacy at the highest levels. Power, who emigrated from Ireland at the age of nine, becomes emotional in the film as she addresses fellow immigrants at an oath of citizenship ceremony.
“It’s very humbling for me to get to be a part of this,” she notes, adding with tears in her eyes, “Serving every day as I do at the United Nations, it’s surreal as an immigrant.” [It may be worth noting that President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan, but her cabinet position can’t be said to boast the foreign policy stakes of ambassador to the U.N.].
In The Final Year, Power and Kerry hopscotch the globe trying to make progress on thorny problems like climate change and a nuclear agreement with Iran. Rhodes (whose Muslim-American advisor Rumana Ahmed appears in the film wearing her headscarf) operates in the trenches, crafting speeches, negotiating normalized relations with Cuba and trying to sort out the wisest course of action in Syria.
“By the time we were filming he was probably spending more time with Obama than any other aide with the exception of the chief of staff and possibly Susan Rice. We’re talking hours a day,” Barker comments. “It was a journalistic decision to focus on him because he was very, very influential.”
The film shows Rhodes and others, in the months leading up to the 2016 election, initially discounting Trump’s chances of winning. Barker rolled cameras as Rhodes and Power watched election night returns come in, their optimism morphing into despair. A crestfallen and nearly speechless Rhodes tells Barker, “It’s a lot to process…I can’t put it into words.”
“It was pretty incredible” to witness those raw reactions, Barker tells Deadline. “Those are the moments that you kind of live for when you make documentaries like I do. You have to build the trust to be in those rooms where emotions are obviously really totally open.”
There has been a stark stylistic and policy shift between Obama and his successor, leaving Rhodes and his colleagues to witness many of their signature achievements dismantled under Trump, including the Iran deal. Some commentators detect a deliberate effort by the Trump administration to nullify Obama’s presidency; Barker sees some truth in that assessment.
“I think that’s basically true,” he observes. “I think you can say that whether you agree with Trump or not.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the context of The Final Year, Barker does not see his film as a political one per se, in the sense of arguing for a particular position.
“I did not make the film to be a political treatise,” he asserts. “I want to make films that kind of open people’s eyes across their political divide, and show humanity at play.”
The Final Year really is about process, observing human beings in the corridors of power, under enormous pressure, trying to do what they think is right. In that respect there is continuity between the Obama and Trump administrations, Barker maintains.
“Trump—as permanent as the administration seems now—he’ll be gone, whether it’s in three years, or seven years, or two months. Who knows,” he says. “And all those people [in government] will be changed and somebody else will come in…It’s a very different time right now. But also as a reminder that these things are transitory, and it’s kind of, ‘Let’s not get too worked up over what’s going on.’ Disagree vehemently, but recognize also that it is by nature part of our system. It’s going to change.”