This Filmmaker Lifts the Lid on Obama's Final Year
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s an insider’s view on how foreign policy gets made.
By Tal Pinchevsky
Greg Barker’s new film, The Final Year, opens with a scene of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power struggling to get out the door — she’s searching for her child’s bagel, which has suddenly gone missing. Cut to Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s rushing toward an idling town car, his security detail in tow, before he does a 180 to return to his house to retrieve a cellphone.
Surprising, perhaps, as the opening minutes of a film about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during his final year in office, but it works to drop viewers into the breakneck pace of this influential inner circle, which also includes White House adviser Ben Rhodes and national security adviser Susan Rice. Documenting the ambitious, and hectic, final year of this group took Barker and his crew to 22 countries and gives audiences an unprecedented glimpse behind the government curtain.
Inviting audiences into worlds typically shrouded in darkness is at the core of Barker’s work (his previous films include Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, Koran by Heart and Sergio). But in a world that consumes the news through increasingly fragmented sources, questioning its truthfulness and integrity at every turn, how does Barker avoid falling prey to the media spin cycle?
“To a certain extent, it’s impossible. Particularly dealing with this subject matter,” Barker tells OZY. “I think with this particular film, people have so much in their heads about what they thought of Obama. There’s all this stuff that they’re bringing to it, plus the context of what we’re living through now with the Trump presidency. So … to avoid all that is impossible.”
A startling admission for a 55–year-old documentary filmmaker who has spent the better part of his career chronicling history as it unfolds. Starting with his early work on PBS’ Frontline series, Barker has set himself the task of bearing witness to pivotal global events while taking pains not to insert himself into the story. It’s a tenuous balance he fought to maintain in The Final Year.
People are hungry for a way of looking at the world that is outside this echo chamber that we’ve somehow found ourselves living in.
Greg Barker, filmmaker
“I made a decision early on this was not going to be a policy film. Obviously there is foreign policy in there, but we’re not going to sit back and try to assess and unpack every aspect, or even every major aspect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy,” Barker says. “I wanted to be in the situations where they were just people going to work … in a motorcade and dealing with their kids while they’ve got a security guard in the front seat.”
That decision may explain the wide-ranging response to the film, which has vacillated between high praise and frustration. In attempting to turn unprecedented access into objective fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, Barker left some critics wanting more. Anthony Lane of The New Yorker called The Final Year “too well behaved,” while The Washington Post’s Alan Zilberman said the film “teeters toward insight, only to turn its attention to personalities.” Perhaps audiences’ expectations have been shaped by the high-octane drama of other political films and TV series, but it appears Barker’s quest for balance had some viewers yearning for revelations that insiders operating at the highest levels of U.S. diplomacy couldn’t deliver.
For this team of foreign policy advisers, “going to work” becomes a collision course between their idealism and the realities of diplomacy. The issues they must tackle are a to-do list of international crises — from intervention in Syria to restoring relations with Cuba to the Iran nuclear pact — each one scrutinized from every direction by the 24-hour news cycle.
So where can cinema verité stake a claim in today’s cluttered media landscape?
“At a time when people are in a tizzy about fake news and trying to understand if they can rely on journalists, one looks for someplace you can lean and feel secure,” says Deirdre Boyle, an associate professor of media studies at the New School. “Documentary has its place. It’s not going to replace journalism, nor should it. You’ve got to have both.”
Growing up in California, Barker remembers getting postcards from his father, a Navy officer who traveled often. His curiosity about the world started there, eventually taking him to London to study international relations with an eye toward a career in government. But he soon gravitated to documentary film, a medium he refers to as “part graduate school, part art, part journalism, part adventure travel.” After 18 years in London, much of it working in production for PBS, CNN and the BBC, Barker returned to America in 2008.
He encountered a country marked by divisions and where, he says, “so much of what passes for public discourse is just shouting.” To cut through the noise and make sense of the mayhem, Barker decided to “tell stories that shed some light” on the people involved and what it’s like to do their jobs. The result is a body of work that is occasionally harrowing but always instructive.
Instructive in ways that have brought his work into the classroom. Julie Goldman, Barker’s producer and collaborator, points out that Sergio, which tells the story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has been included in school curricula. And the effectiveness of work like Barker’s as a teaching tool hasn’t been lost on educators.
“We know the nontraditional learner doesn’t respond to the same old way of teaching,” says Deirdre Haj, a senior adviser for television and film at Duke University. Trying to teach visual learners through nonfiction writing only goes so far, “but if you show them the story instead, wouldn’t they remember the information more accurately and be more engaged?” Haj asks. “The answer is overwhelmingly yes.”
Barker’s original intention didn’t involve becoming an educator, and he’s currently working to transition to narrative feature film. Negotiations to direct a feature about New York Times correspondent David Rohde ultimately stalled, but he remains unswayed in his search for truth, and a good story.
“Right now it can be a golden age,” Barker insists, “because people are hungry for a way of looking at the world that is outside this echo chamber that we’ve somehow found ourselves living in.”
- Tal Pinchevsky, OZY Author Contact Tal Pinchevsky