Watching The Final Year is a little bit like time traveling. The film, which opened the DOC NYC Film Festival last night, charts the last year of the Obama administration, following the president and his foreign policy team, including then-Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, as they navigate their final projects in office. The film was accorded the honor of opening this year’s DOC NYC, which runs through Nov. 16.
Playing on opening night, Nov. 9, meant that the film screened exactly one year after Donald Trump’s first day as president-elect, a resonant timeliness that was not lost on the film’s director, Greg Barker. As a preface to the screening, Barker joked, “For the next 90 minutes, Donald Trump is no longer president,” drawing laughs from the crowd and evoking a sense of nostalgia that lingered for the duration of the film.
Following the screening, Barker was joined by Ben Rhodes and Rumana Ahmed, who had been Rhodes’s senior adviser under Obama, to discuss the making of the yearlong story. Barker came up with the idea for the film in 2015 and first introduced it to Samantha Power. She was “intrigued but skeptical,” he said, while “her staff thought it was a largely terrible idea.” The conceit was ambitious; Barker would require unprecedented access to the West Wing along with clearance to trail the foreign policy team members on trips around the world–21 countries in total.
“It became clear hanging out with these guys for the course of a year that the film was becoming not just about their last year and their legacy,” Barker said, “but also about how we view the world as Americans, and how we project ourselves into the world.” Some of the film’s most affecting scenes surround Obama’s historic address at Hiroshima and trip to Laos, both of which marked the first visits by a sitting U.S. president.
After the film, Rhodes made reference to these trips as well as Power’s extensive humanitarian travel to countries like Chad and Cameroon, condemning the Trump administration for failing to follow suit. “If we’re not showing up there–we, the United States–nobody else is,” Rhodes said. “We really do play this role of organizing the international community to deal with problems like that, and so right now nobody’s showing up.”
One through-line in the film is the team’s ongoing diplomatic efforts in Syria, and Barker captures the frustration of both Kerry and Power after Russian interference disrupted their negotiations for a Syrian ceasefire. Regarding U.S. relations with Syria, Rhodes remarked during the panel: “What I look back on, actually, was earlier at the very beginning–the diplomatic opportunities that could have been pursued more aggressively. It’s interesting that it’s always framed as ‘should you have bombed the country at this point’ or ‘should you have armed more people earlier’ as if those things work, and I actually believe that the track record demonstrates that they tend to not work.”
The film ends with a poignant speech that Obama made in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, during his final trip abroad as president. At that point, the team was aware that much of the political legacy that they had worked to construct was in danger of being quickly dismantled by then-president-elect Trump, who would assume office soon after.
For Rhodes’ senior advisor Ahmed, whose contract at the White House extended into Trump’s term, the change in administration was scarier and more complicated than she anticipated. “Within that first week after January 20, the speed at which all these different policies were being rolled out was terrifying,” she said during the Q&A. As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, she added, “I never would have imagined being able to have a voice in the White House, and it kind of became completely nonexistent afterwards.” Ahmed left her post eight days into the new administration, a choice that she describes in a recent article delineating her experience under the new leadership.
Looking to the future, Rhodes emphasized the need for citizens to stay active, alert, and attuned to the international perspective. “When I visit countries now, they say it’s not just going to be enough to elect someone different in 2020,” he explained. “The doubts about American leadership come from the fact that Trump was elected, not just the fact of Trump. I think those people need to see the different America. They need to see that this is not representative of who we are.”