It seems like a postcard from The Upside Down: In his new documentary The Final Year, director Greg Barker follows a small group of U.S. diplomats, including the Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and speechwriter Greg Rhodes, as they fly around the world in a delicate exercise of soft power to try to secure deals with a string of foreign powers before the sun sets on the Obama Administration. We spoke with Barker about what it's like to see his portrait of – well, of normalcy and rationality – hit theatres as the U.S. foreign policy-making apparatus struggles to limit the damage of the current President's crockery-breaking tendencies.
This is a portrait of diplomats, a breed known for their negotiating skills. What sort of negotiations did you undertake to gain access to their lives?
It was a process. The first conversations were in the summer of '15. My pitch was basically, I wanted to humanize the process of government and show what it was like inside, and follow them through what I thought would likely be a momentous last year of a presidency. It really came down to: Could we be in rooms and not get in the way? I just couldn't show anything classified, but legally they can't reveal anything classified when we're there, anyway, so it was never really an issue.
For a film about the tough business of diplomacy, why didn't you show us any of the meetings where thorny negotiations are actually taking place? There's a moment where John Kerry greets the Egyptian foreign minister, and then the door shuts in our face. I wanted to be in the room where they were actually dealing with these issues.
Well, I would have loved to be there, too. I never wanted this to be a straight foreign policy film per se, I wanted it to be an experiential film about the emotions at play. It's what interests me more as a storyteller now. We were constantly pushing for access to this room, that room. In that case, the Egyptian foreign minister is not inclined to want cameras in the room, and Kerry is not going to say, "You either have cameras in the room or I'm not taking this meeting."
Sure. But it would have been nice to get a taste of that.
We actually were in a lot of rooms where they were talking about very detailed things. A lot of it is incredibly technical, conducted in shorthand. I mean, one vision of the film I had was – it was all only these meetings. It was essentially indecipherable, because they are much more technical and frankly really more tedious than you can imagine. The number of meetings where people are shouting at each other and stuff is actually happening is actually pretty small.
You've said that you always believed the film would be controversial. Why?
Well, when you're filming inside the White House, the Administration, there's always going to be people who agree or don't agree with those people. It's really inside the bubble. So, if you think that they're the greatest thing ever, you're going to find a lot of stuff to validate that. If you think they were naive, completely missed the boat on the Trump election, you're going to find a lot of stuff to validate that opinion as well.
Speaking of which, how do you feel about the fact that the film is infinitely more interesting because your protagonists – who for most of their screen time presume Hillary Clinton will win the election and more or less continue their legacy – have their legs cut out from them at the end?
The film is constructed intentionally. I didn't  it until after the election, so it's like the Titanic, right? So, we know that they're going to hit the iceberg, the characters in the film do not know. So, there's the narrative on the screen, and then there's the narrative in our own brain, counterposing what we're seeing with what is happening today.
In the opening sequence, Samantha Power says, 'We came in wanting to repair America's standing in the world.' And you can't help but hear that and be walloped by the recognition that America's standing is going to need repairing tenfold after the current presidency.
It's not just what's being tweeted from the White House, it's about what's being lost institutionally. You see in the background of this movie, all these foreign service positions, a lot of these people are leaving now, and that is going to take a long time to rebuild. When the United States makes a deal, generally – of course there's differences of Republican or Democrat – but generally it was important for any Administration to keep the word of the previous Administration. Just to keep America's credibility intact. And now, how is anybody going to trust us?
How does it feel that the film is opening almost exactly one year after Trump's inauguration?
I do hope that it speaks to this particular moment that we're in by showing an alternative reality that seems like 10,000 years ago. Even though it was just a year ago.
The Final Year opens Jan. 19 in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, and Regina, and is also available on VOD.
This interview has been condensed and edited.