Greg Barker set out to make a thematic bookend to “The War Room” with “The Final Year,” a look at Barack Obama’s foreign policy team over their last 12 months in office.
Whereas “The War Room,” the 1993 American documentary film about Bill Clinton’s White House campaign, captured the rough and tumble nature of a national election and the quest for power, “The Final Year” examines how people use the power they achieved and how the office changes the men and women who orbit the president.
“I had this fascination with the inner workings of government and how it functions because of these ordinary people who are operating in extraordinary jobs,” Barker told Variety on the eve of the film’s premiere at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. “They have these taxing jobs where they’re dealing with complicated issues without any easy solution.”
The film doesn’t just focus on the 44th president. It closely follows former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as they grapple with everything from the civil war in Syria to an upcoming presidential visit to Laos. “The Final Year” isn’t just about foreign policy debates. The film takes time to capture more mundane moments, such as Kerry sprinting from his waiting motorcade back into his house to retrieve a cellphone or Power getting her young children ready for school.
“I was trying to tell a human story,” said Barker. “Government officials can seem removed from all of us on a lot of levels. I wanted to find those moments where they’re trying to lead their normal lives. I wanted the audience to not just see these people as talking heads.”
The pace the Obama officials maintain is punishing, as they sprint to secure the president’s legacy before transferring the machinery of government — there’s an Iran nuclear deal to negotiate, an opening of relations with Cuba and several attempts at a Syrian ceasefire. Of course, there’s one looming X-factor to all their diplomatic efforts: Donald Trump.
Like many pundits, the members of Obama’s team are confident that Trump will never occupy the Oval Office and that Hillary Clinton will prevail, but that changes. Barker and his crew were on hand to capture their reactions to Trump’s upset presidential victory. Power hosted a party with Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright that took on a funereal air, while Rhodes is interviewed on election night looking stricken and at a total loss for words.
“It was extraordinary,” said Barker. “They went into the evening thinking they’d be handing over everything to friends and then it became something else entirely. It was a hugely significant moment for the country.”
Barker, whose previous films include “Manhunt,” a look at the CIA’s war on Al Qaeda, thinks the picture took on an added resonance with Trump’s election.
“It became a lot more important,” he said. “This cast of characters that we’d been tracking for a year, all their assumptions about what they had achieved and were leaving for the next administration were up for grabs. It became a kind of historic document of a monument in time that has passed.”