A new documentary reveals the inner workings of the Obama White House. Jessamy Calkin meets one of its stars, former United Nations ambassador Samantha Power.
A new documentary reveals the inner workings of the Obama White House. Jessamy Calkin meets one of its stars, former Unted Nations ambassador Samantha Power.
In December 2016, at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, American Ambassador Samantha Power was seriously rattled. “Are you truly incapable of shame?” she asked, her question directed at Russia, Iran and Syria’s Assad regime.
“Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit?”
She was talking about Aleppo, about the copious killing of civilians and the blocking of aid at the height of the siege. It was one of the last major speeches of her tenure, after three and a half years as US ambassador to the UN with the Obama administration. The clip went viral.
But Power now says there was nothing special about it — it was typical of many exchanges she had over the years with her Russian counterparts. The world’s perception was what had changed.
“The fact that it went viral actually says more about America and the rest of the world than it says about the eloquence of my statements, because I’ve made many more fiery and frankly more interesting and original statements. But the thing broke.”
Aleppo was on its last legs and revelations about Russia’s influence on the US election were beginning to surface. There was a growing climate of concern.
“Trump had won and people were beginning to ask, ‘How could this have happened?’ And it was rare that Syria had a moment where that kind of focus was brought to bear.
“If you’re in diplomacy, it’s about opportunism and sensing the moment is upon you and trying to make something of it. But for Aleppo, those were just words. Aleppo fell. And they are incapable of shame.”
At that time, Power was the only female ambassador in the Security Council (out of 15 — there were six women in 2014, and four in 2015). She was also the youngest ever to be appointed by the US, in 2013, when she was 42 (having spent four years as an adviser in the White House).
A month before the Aleppo speech she’d had the bright idea of inviting all the female UN ambassadors (it’s a life title) to her house to celebrate the election of America’s first female President.
The guest of honour was Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be Secretary of State (under Bill Clinton); also present were writer and activist Gloria Steinem, and designer and businesswoman Jenna Lyons. And a film crew, who were recording a documentary about Barack Obama’s final year in office.
In what is one of the most memorable scenes of the film, we see the women initially elated, then circumspect, then disbelieving, and finally struggling to absorb the truth — that it is Donald Trump who will be elected 45th President of the United States, and not Hillary Clinton.
The Final Year is a film that director Greg Barker originally envisioned as “the war-room documentary — but in reverse. So, about people in power, but as they are leaving power”. It focuses chiefly on Secretary of State John Kerry; Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications; and Power, with interviews with Obama threaded throughout.
Filming began in September 2015, and finished on January 20, 2017 (the date of Trump’s inauguration), with the team packing up and leaving the White House. Nobody knew Trump would win. It was always going to end with leaving the White House, but the election result altered the psychology of the film.
“It dramatically changed the impact,” says producer John Battsek. “It became a testament to a group of people and a mentality that is gone now. There’s an extra level of melancholy.” The film-makers were granted unprecedented access, and their subjects had no veto power or involvement in the edit.
Of course, some meetings were classified, but the nimble little crew — director, field producer, camera and sound — just became part of the White House team. Barker’s idea was to capture what it was actually like to do those jobs. And focusing on the foreign policy team in Obama’s second term was apt. Interviews with the President were done on the hoof.
“As much as we could get of him,” says Barker. “I never wanted to have Obama sitting in the Oval Office doing a formal interview, filmed by 20 people with lights and paraphernalia — because then he’d be in professional-politician mode.” There are no formal sit-down interviews or talking heads; instead, key players are shown in cars, lifts, planes — it is a crash course in diplomacy.
The team prioritised what they wanted to do with the time they had left, with a view to making their achievements harder to dismantle. “Bearing witness is both an instinct and a responsibility,” says Power.
Thus we see her in Nigeria, offering comfort to the mothers of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram; we see Kerry, who appears never to sleep, pursuing the Iran nuclear deal, leading a diplomatic push on Syria, and travelling to Greenland to witness the effects of climate change; we see Obama at Hiroshima, talking about the tragedy of war (“Death fell from the sky and the world was changed … ”); and we see Rhodes in Cuba, and in his basement office writing speeches for the President.