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.

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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.

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