Directed By: Greg Barker
Runtime: 89 minutes
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
This documentary, an attempt to illuminate the behind-the-scenes activity of President Obama’s foreign policy team, is an effort whose ambition greatly exceeded its ability to deliver. Alternating between scenes of Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, and, almost as an afterthought, President Barack Obama, the movie, depending for emotional resonance on audience foreknowledge of the issues at stake and the outcome of the 2016 election, fails to provide a clear context, or rationale, for all this globe-trotting.
Carefully avoiding political polemics, and lacking a clear point of view, other than, perhaps, a confused thesis that diplomacy is better than military force except when it’s not, the movie is an occasionally bittersweet cinema verite mishmash of busy people on airplanes, at conferences, world historical sites, or their cars and offices. While focusing more on who these people are, and why they do what they do, would have made a much better movie, the few insights on display are mere interludes between yet more airplanes arriving, worldwide handshaking, and diplomatic conversations without much context.
The movie’s most emotionally powerful and engaging sequence, election night 2016 at Democratic headquarters, is what this movie might have been about if its makers hadn’t deliberately avoided the politics of Obama’s last year in office. That gloomy shadow, all but ignored by the filmmakers, overhangs everything that the foreign policy team does for most of the movie, but requires the lived experience of the audience to recognize it.
This movie is not really a bad one, mostly because its subjects work at the fascinating pinnacle of American global influence, but it’s not a very good one, either. It only hints at the fragility of nearly every diplomatic encounter, and never digs deeper than the most superficial layer. With a subject as vast as the American foreign policy establishment, during a year as fraught with unexpected consequences as 2016 turned out to be, maybe it was doomed from the start.
Recommendation: Watch it on HBO if you haven’t got anything better to do.