Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. It can, on the other hand, throw up new perspectives which may turn out to be hard to live with.
Greg Barker’s fly-on-the wall documentary about the last hurrah of the Obama administration is of itself a highly watchable piece of work. But, as is widely acknowledged, a year is a long time in politics – a long, long time in some cases. As we stand now on the threshold of the second year of a new dispensation, one is overwhelmed by a sense of hope thwarted and ideals shattered all in the course of a mere twelve months.
Barker’s focus is on the complicated patchwork that was the administration’s foreign policy, its inheritance of historic American involvement in conflicts across the world and its own decisions to intervene or stand back. He has been granted unprecedented access to the inner workings of the West Wing, a cramped, grubby maze of rooms where impassioned conversations between the President and his team result in crucial decisions being taken against a global backdrop of massive moral dilemmas and contradictions. The worsening current situation is proof that many of those decisions have turned out to be far from unqualified successes.
Obama may be very much the leader of the gang but he is also the most composed, low key figure in the evolving drama. Not that drama is the quite right word, for this meandering journey is less about personalities, news headlines and breaking big stories but more about the hard graft carried out by a group of intelligent, highly motivated, well meaning human beings who carry the fate of the world on their shoulders.
Former Presidential candidate, Vietnam veteran and Secretary of State John Kerry appears relaxed about his close contact with the camera crew, even permitting them to eavesdrop on a conversation with his wife as he heads off on another difficult mission. Clubbable, charming and persuasive, he embodies the ultimate in diplomacy, glad handing when necessary, fearlessly speaking hard truths when required. His gruelling globe trotting schedule of late night meetings and eleventh hour negotiations would be the death of others half his age.
Strategic communications adviser Ben Rhodes is the original anonymous bureaucrat, quietly spoken and watchful. His incisive intellect and verbal agility make him the beating heart of the operation. It is significant that Rhodes remains Obama’s speechwriter and close associate. If it were not for real, his complete and absolute loss of words, in attempting to formulate a response to the Trump victory, would be worthy of an acting award.
The most interesting of the featured trio is Irish immigrant and former academic Samantha Power, the UN ambassador, who leads with her heart and her instincts. Unafraid, hands-on and accessible, she bestrides the corridors of power with authority but is equally capable of sitting in the blistering sun, talking with Nigerian women from the Bring Back Our Girls campaign and sharing their tears over the loss of their daughters to Boko Haram.
While lacking in discernible narrative, this handsome film captures a number of powerful enduring images: the mutually emotional embrace in Hiroshima between Obama and an elderly man who survived the atrocity; an angry Kerry speaking out against the Russians at the Syrian peace negotiations in Vienna; a visibly shocked Power visiting the family home of a small boy who had been killed by a vehicle in her own convoy; a US helicopter slowly advancing on Laos, this time carrying the President rather than an invading convoy of troops.
One can only assume that a brave, if baffling, editorial decision was taken to ignore the encroaching drama of the forthcoming election. Was the production team so convinced of the certainty of a Clinton win that it was felt to be more effective to allow subsequent events to tell their own triumphant story?
Power had invited to the Democratic Party bash a group of female US ambassadors, as well as Madeleine Albright, the first female Secretary of State, and the feminist writer and political activist Gloria Steinem. They were gathered to celebrate the smashing of the glass ceiling. But, as we now know, it was not to be. All concerned had failed to see the potential melodrama of the approaching juggernaut but, as the result becomes clear, the shared state of shock carries its own understated screen drama.
The coolest man in the room is Obama himself, whose charisma and controlled calm, even during the most testing times of his eight-year tenure, reminds us, a year on, of what it means to be the President of the United States.