A behind-the-scenes look at foreign policy in ‘The Final Year’

“The Final Year” director Greg Barker.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
“The Final Year” director Greg Barker.

In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” Samantha Power pulled back the curtain on US diplomacy.

“I was a reporter going into a world that was very shrouded to me,” says Power, who wrote for The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, and The Economist, among other publications. “I was on the outside trying to get access, to get people to talk to me about what they were doing.”

It was a painstaking process, but the experience proved helpful a decade later when Power became a policymaker, serving as the US Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration. It also prompted Power to listen in 2015 when filmmaker Greg Barker approached her with an interesting idea.


Barker wanted to follow Obama’s foreign policy team for the last 12 months of the administration, documenting their success or failure in dealing with the crisis in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, and the issues of climate change, terrorism, and immigration.

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Power had reservations — “When it comes to the media, there’s nothing in the DNA of the government that has an ‘Open Sesame’ instinct,” she says — but Barker eventually got the green light to tag along as Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and Power crisscrossed the globe.

The result is “The Final Year,” a documentary that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the flesh-and-blood characters whose job it was to coax and cajole overseas leaders in the last chapter of the Obama presidency. The movie opens in theaters Friday and will be available on demand on Amazon Video and iTunes the same day.

“I wanted to try to capture the humanity of the people inside government and to show what it’s like, emotionally, to grapple with these very difficult issues,” says Barker, whose previous films include the 2013 documentary “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden” and several episodes of the PBS series “Frontline.”

“The Final Year” would be eminently watchable even if Donald Trump were not elected president. But he was, and Barker’s film serves to highlight how radically different Trump’s approach to foreign policy is from his predecessor’s. The contrast makes “The Final Year” feel essential.


“Samantha asked me on election night, ‘What does this mean for your movie?’ ” Barker recalls. “I said, ‘I think it just got a lot more important.’ ”

While the film’s focus is Obama’s diplomatic push in the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump is very much in the background in “The Final Year,” a Max Headroom-like spectre appearing on TV screens in offices and airport lounges. Interestingly, he’s given little credence as a candidate by Obama’s team. At one point, talking to a young woman in Laos, Rhodes dismisses the idea that Trump could be elected.

“We cut the film entirely after the election,” Barker says. “The way Trump is handled in the movie is an intentional storytelling choice. The audience knows what happened.”

“The Final Year” doesn’t profess to be a balanced, unbiased view of Obama’s foreign policy or its principal architects. The director definitely has a point of view.

“I’m not interested in the ‘Frontline’ version of this, with the greatest respect to my friends [at PBS],” Barker says. “The ‘Frontline’ version would be a lot of talking heads — pick your Republican — peppered throughout for context.


“I’m not a journalist anymore,” he says. “I used to be a journalist, but I’m a storyteller, and what interested me were these characters and their emotional journeys.”

Barker instead likens Obama’s diplomatic corps to a rock ’n’ roll band — one that’s about to break up.

“It’s a band that’s been together for a decade around this lead singer,” the director says. “They’ve been existing inside this bubble, and I wanted the film to live inside that bubble.”

Barker and his crew accompanied US officials on trips to 21 countries over the course of filming, including Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Vietnam, Greenland, and Japan, where cameras captured Obama’s historic speech at Hiroshima.

For Power, who now teaches at Harvard, the appeal of “The Final Year” is the way it tries to demystify the “inscrutable, shrouded set of institutions that is government,” reminding viewers that real people, logging long hours for low pay, do the hard work of diplomacy.

“There are a lot of people who don’t get center stage in the film, but are the reason any of us who are depicted are able to do what we do,” she says. “These are people serving thanklessly, people Trump has begun to ridicule as ‘the deep state.’ ”

It’s possible, maybe even likely, that some viewers will emerge from the movie feeling sad. But Power, in an interview the day after Trump’s infamous tweet about the size of his nuclear button, said she hopes it will have a different effect.

“It’s a sad time for our country, but not because our legacy is being ripped apart or because we put in all that time and it’s being wasted,” she says. “It’s a sad time because we have to watch this buffoonery in our foreign policy.

“I don’t come out of this film sad as much as mad — and motivated,” Power says. “I might be inconsolable if history stopped and Trump was the end, but there’s so much happening that’s contesting and challenging what he’s doing. I think this film will be another bit of fuel on the fire.”

Maybe so, but Barker, who has developed many contacts in what he calls the country’s “foreign policy machinery” — the State Department, CIA, and Department of Defense — says holdovers from previous administrations are very unhappy with what’s transpired in the past 12 months.

“The whole system is being dismantled for no reason. It’s painful and it’s idiotic,” Barker says. “We depend on our diplomatic service, and they’re basically being insulted by the president and the secretary of state.”

Still, Power remains optimistic about the future of American foreign policy, and she thinks “The Final Year” may help stir people to action.

“Nothing excites me more, when I look at the horizon, than the prospect of rebuilding our diplomatic apparatus,” she says. “It’ll be like post-9/11, when lots of people went into government after seeing the towers go down. I think you’re going to see tens of thousands stepping up to rebuild what’s being dismantled.”

Mark Shanahan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan