The Final Year Spotlights the Ins and Outs of Government
By Allie Waxman
At the New York premiere of The Final Year, the filmmakers and subjects gathered to celebrate the film and reflect on the changing political landscape since the transition of power in January 2017. The documentary, which focuses on President Barack Obama’s final year in office and the foreign policy efforts of his administration, closely follows two top White House staffers, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. Director Greg Barker was joined by Rhodes and his colleague Rumana Ahmed in a post-screening discussion.
Because an interview with New York Times Magazine portrayed him in a negative light, Rhodes paused before participating in the documentary. “If you feel like you’ve been burned by access, usually people recoil,” Rhodes explained. “I thought the opposite; I thought that a documentary filmmaker is someone who’s going to show nuance.” He also understood that his participation could “actually be a record that survives and that people could view 10 years from now,” giving his work more longevity than a typical press briefing. “If people don’t understand what we’re trying to do, I have a responsibility to let people see,” he stated.
“Tonight was bitter but it was also sweet to be reminded of what was possible” reflected Ahmed, who continued on the National Security Council eight days into Trump’s presidency. “I’m reminded, sitting here and watching this today, of what we did and what we can come back to doing. The pendulum will swing back.” When asked why she wanted to stay in her role, Ahmed commented she felt she could still make a difference by continuing the progress of the previous administration: “You have to hold onto hope to have the impetus to keep moving forward.”
The Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts included a focus on human rights issues globally and the ability to mobilize the international community. To that end the film depicts Samantha Power’s trips to Chad and Cameroon. “If we’re not showing up there, nobody else is,” Rhodes explained. “We play this role of organizing the international community to deal with problems like that, and right now nobody’s showing up.”
Rhodes continued, “As an institution, I worry about American diplomacy, which is what this film is about. I hope what this film does is galvanize people to want to do these jobs. There will be a need to re-stock the cohort of American diplomats to go back out there to these places and fix these problems which are going to get worse in the next few years.”