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Big League National Security

Film ‘The Final Year’ delivers backstage pass to Obama’s foreign policy team’s last hurrah

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The director of “Koran by Heart” and “Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden” has made the most intimate documentary to ever capture the inner workings of any White House with this film of President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team in “The Final Year” slated for its U.S. release Jan. 19.

“We started with a simple idea,” said Greg Barker, whose credits also include documentaries for the PBS series “Frontline.”

“Was it possible, I wondered, to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the last year of a presidency, in the spirit of the classic campaign film ‘The War Room,’ only in reverse?” he said. “The War Room” is the classic behind-the-scenes film of Arkansas Gov. William J. Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

In addition to Obama, the film features Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Benjamin J. Rhodes, United Nations Ambassador Samantha J. Power and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice.

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Barker said national security and foreign policy staffers were not accustomed to having cameras and microphones, but it worked out.

“We all took a leap of faith and began filming, slowly at first to build trust and figure out the broad parameters of how and when we could be present with cameras,” he said.

Watch the film’s trailer here:

Barker said it was not until late in the process that he realized what the film was really about. “This is a story about a small group of people who came together nearly a decade ago, rallying behind a man and his cause.”

When it was over, the production team had to sift through more than 1,000 hours of footage shot around the world in Austria, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Chad, Cuba, Denmark, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Greenland, Japan, Laos, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Vietnam.

The shooting began in September 2015 and over the next 90 days, the film crew followed not only

The director said the last scenes he shot were the most poignant for him.

“At 4 a.m. on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, my team and I filmed U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power as she slowly removed her 7-year-old son’s artwork from the walls of her office overlooking 1st Avenue,” he said.

President Barack hugs U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha J. Power in the Situation Room of the White House, Jan. 17, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)This photograph is provided by THE WHITE HOUSE as a courtesy and may be printed by the subject(s) in the photograph for personal use only. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not otherwise be reproduced, disseminated or broadcast, without the written permission of the White House Photo Office. This photograph may not be used in any commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

“She filled a bankers box with all the drawings, and then carried it down into a waiting SUV for what would be her last official ride as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations,” he said.

“As Samantha Power drove away into the night, and I called a wrap on the entire production, I knew I had a unique opportunity to make a truly revealing film about the human dynamics and emotions at play inside the normally opaque world of US diplomacy,” he said.

As Power was packing up things in New York City, her colleagues in Washington were also preparing for their return to private life, Barker said.

“I filmed with Secretary John Kerry as he left the State Department for the final time, and with speechwriter and presidential confidant Ben Rhodes in the White House as he packed his own belongings, wistfully coming across his handwritten notes from a 2009 sit-down with Obama in the Oval Office to talk through what the president wanted to say in his upcoming speech in Cairo,” he said.

“This was the end of an era – everyone felt it,” he said. “For me personally, the end of an epic 15-month film shoot that took me on a once-in-a-career journey inside the workings of our foreign policy machinery.”

The director said the featured staffers and Obama were compelling because after all that time together, the viewer can see how the staffers struggled to lockdown their president’s legacy.

“They set out to change the world, and against all expectations, found themselves in a position to affect that change,” he said.

“The believed they could redefine American foreign policy, promote diplomacy over large-scale military action, and alter how we as a nation think about questions of war and peace,” he said.

President Barack Obama walks on the Colonnade of the White House with Secretary of State John Kerry following a working lunch with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, March 24, 2015. (White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“They had their share of victories — the Iran deal, climate change, Cuba – and despite their own internal divisions over one of the toughest foreign policy questions of our age, the outset of 2016 they believed they had largely succeeded, and that their legacy would define US foreign policy for decades to come, the director said.

“As anyone who has worked in government knows, behind the access, the crises of the moment, and the elusive but seductive sense of power, there is simply an enormous amount of hard, usually thankless work,” he said. “Witnessing that up close, and seeing how dedicated our public servants are, was truly humbling and inspiring — honestly the greatest privilege of my professional life.”

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