Greg Barker’s The Final Year, which played New York for a week in an Oscar-qualifying run last year and returns today for a full theatrical release, offers an insiders’ look at the Barack Obama administration’s foreign policy during its last year in office. It concentrates on four people: Obama himself, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Rhodes is the least well-known of these and Barker’s portrayal of him is, in many ways, the film’s most compelling element. Very slickly directed in a way that belies the fact that it was shot on-the-cuff with natural light in many different locations, The Final Year switches its focus from person to person and subject to subject constantly. While its portrait of Obama is generally quite positive, it does delve into the complexities of trying — and eventually failing — to develop a coherent approach to the violence in Syria. The Final Year is the fourth documentary Barker has made for HBO, and he is now planning to make his narrative debut for the cable network.

Greg Barker
Magnolia Pictures

StudioDaily: There are multiple reference points people might bring to your film: classic documentaries like Crisis and The War Room, TV shows like The West Wing and Veep, cable news shows. How conscious were you about your place in the media landscape?

Greg Barker: I was probably very self-conscious, because I find that our media landscape is overwhelming [and] impossible to fully comprehend and largely debases our entire public discourse. I find that deeply tragic. I don’t know a way out of it. There’s no way back. There was no perfect moment in the past, but certainly the one we’re in is totally lacking in empathy and trying to understand alternative points of view. I’ve spent most of my life listening to people from all backgrounds, and all points of power. That’s a long way of saying how I came to make documentary films. I try to have a habit of shading grey between right and wrong or political points of view. I try to show the world as it is. A lot of people want a film to tell you what to think and have a binary point of view. That’s the way cable news is going. I’m not interested in that whatsoever. I am trying to build empathy, and fundamentally I am a storyteller and want to show strong characters. But I also want to step outside the noise and show things as they really are.

You worked with two different editors and also two different cinematographers. How did that process go?

There were really two main cinematographers, and probably half a dozen others. That was impossible, given the schedule, for one person to shoot all of it. I chose people who were able to work at this level of being with very powerful people and staying cool, relaxed and getting what we needed. The 2 main DPs, Erich Roland and Martina Radwan, were amazing, and the two editors, both of whom I had worked with on other projects … there was a time when we had to grapple with all the rushes we’d shot and make something approaching a cut. That was when I had two editors working side-by-side simultaneously for two months. It was great, actually. It was exhausting, but it was one of the most exciting collaborative enterprises I’ve been part of. It took a lot of brain power, not just my own, to figure out what I wanted it to become.

You were able to travel all over the world, going to places like Vietnam and Nigeria. How could you afford that? What was your budget?

I can’t give an exact figure, but there were a lot of expenses. Luckily, we had a budget that was big enough to allow us to do this. There was a leap of faith on the part of the funders. The film was fully funded by HBO, who are generous enough to let us have a full theatrical release before the broadcast, which is going to happen in late May. We had worked together previously. They let us have the resources we needed to do it.

Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes
Magnolia Pictures

Did you feel different talking to Ben Rhodes, because he’s not a public figure in the way that Kerry and Obama are?

Yes. Even though Ben was very powerful in the White House — he spent more time with Obama than almost anyone else — he wasn’t in a Cabinet-level position. Obviously, Samantha and Kerry were in the Cabinet. So he didn’t have a security detail. He was more of a normal guy. He came across that way. Because he wasn’t used to having a camera follow him, it took time for him to figure out what that meant. There’s a moment in the film where he realizes it and actually finds it liberating in a way. You see him in the film spending a lot of time preparing for the day’s briefing or other substantive issues, but the time he spent with me and my crew might have a more long-lasting impact than what he said at a briefing on that given day. Over time, things opened up, and he just had to get used to having a crew following him around. It was weird for him at first. I always describe it as a leap of faith. When people are holding back, the audience can tell, and we’re not going to be able to use the footage anyway because it’s not going to feel authentic. So you have to let go and be yourself and trust that while he might not like everything in the film … I told all the characters in the film that, while they might not like everything in it, I’m going to be accurate and create a representation of who you are and then put that out into the world.

I was impressed by his vulnerability, especially that image of him right after Trump gets elected.

Again, that only comes out of the time we spent with him in the White House. In documentary filmmaking, you want to be around long enough that people don’t exactly forget you’re there but that they’re comfortable with you being there. By then, he was really revealing himself at one of his darkest moments professionally. I could feel it, but it was compelling cinema. I had a job to do, and I got it on camera.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama meeting members of ISAF in Afghanistan.
Magnolia Pictures

How hard was it to get to a final cut, especially since the film changes subject every four or five minutes?

It’s always hard to get to a final cut! Normally you end the film when you run out of money or there’s a deadline you can’t escape. We had the luxury of time with this. Our first cut was really before the inauguration: a version of it just for myself. I wanted to see what I had before they left office. I didn’t want to film anything after they left office because people start acting differently then, even the next day. I needed to know what I was missing. From then to the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I had seven or eight months. I had the time to spend months on the film, take a few weeks off, go back to it, do a test screening. We had time to work on it, create an arc with the different characters. That took a little work. By the time we worked in the score and the post-production, which was very involved because of the way we filmed this — the colors and the light balances were all over the place. Nothing was lit. Everything was caught in the moment. To make that look like it was all tied together took a while. You just sort of know when it’s done. We just had to put aside what was happening in the news. It happens that it plays against the reality we’re living in, but it was a pleasure to end it, actually.

What kinds of cameras did you shoot on?

We shot on the Sony F55, with a variety of zooms and prime lenses, and then we usually had two or three Sony a7Ss, often with prime lenses — usually 50mm or 28mm. Those cameras were often really helpful for some of the small rooms we were in. Sometimes we could put the big camera in a small room. On election night, for instance, that scene is all shot on an a7S with a 50mm lens. It’s extraordinary what those little cameras can do now. It takes time in the final post to bring out those images. You can’t rush it, and it’s not cheap. But the main benefit of that is not actually economic. It’s just in terms of being able to fit without making people uncomfortable.

Ambassador Samantha Power and President Barack Obam

Ambassador Samantha Power and President Barack Obama.
Magnolia Pictures

Did you ever worry that you were getting too comfortable with power?

Y’know, in every film there’s a built-in tension. I always spend a lot of time with my main characters. You spend a lot of time with them and get to know them. On some level, you get to like them. At the same time, I have to keep that distance and objectivity to make a film they may or may not like. I’ve done it for long enough now, and I’ve been lucky enough to make a career out of it, that I know how to do it. I’m up-front with people going in. It’s different, honestly, with senior government officials. These are not ordinary people who are not used to being on camera. Rhodes is not a public figure, but he’s still a government official and we’re paying his salary, so he can take it. I didn’t really worry about it. I didn’t care if they liked every scene or not. I knew I had ultimate editorial control in the cutting room. Now they’ve seen it a few times since it premiered. They’re comfortable with it, but they weren’t always happy that so much of the film revolves around the Syria question or debacle, depending how you look at it. But they recognize it was a big part of their final year. It’s not that I don’t worry about it. I don’t want to be glib. It’s not something that posed more of a challenge than anything else. In a way, it made things easier because I wasn’t exposing people who aren’t used to being filmed. I’ve been in that situation. That makes me much more uncomfortable. These people are all working in the White House, they’re grown-ups, and they can handle it.

Have you heard from any Trump supporters or, on the other side, leftists who think Obama was too centrist and moderate who have seen the film?

Sure. People have thought that. I did not set out to make a film that tried to put him in a historical context or unpack his presidency. I used to make investigative films for Frontline [on PBS], so I know how to do that. It just doesn’t interest me any more. That’s all gonna come out in the history books, as memoirs are published. People are going to want a film that speaks to their political predispositions. That’s not what I want to make. I find that intellectually boring. It goes back to back where I started, about a lack of empathy. Yeah, he sold things out. He promised to close Guantanamo and didn’t. Absolutely. He continued drone wars relentlessly. They would argue lots of reasons why it happened. They would argue why they couldn’t stop the carnage in Syria. There’s a lot of validity to all of that. If you want to find reasons why they did it, watch the film and you’ll find an accurate reflection. There were lots of plus and minuses to his administration, and we can all debate what that means.

I wasn’t always sure if your images of Obama speaking were shot by your team directly. How much access did you have to him directly?

We shot all of that, apart from some archival stuff towards the beginning of the film. I had a lot of access to him. I interviewed him for several hours over several meetings. I didn’t want sit-down interviews with him in the Oval Office, because every politician goes into a certain mode there. I wanted to capture spontaneity, and he is not necessarily a spontaneous guy, so there’s always a tension there, pushing for more and more. I didn’t want to get what would have been easy to get.

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama at the White House.

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama at the White House.
Magnolia Pictures

The Final Year opens today in limited release; for a list of cities and showtimes, visit the official website