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.

In person, Power is tall — 1.75m — and rather beautiful, with creamy skin and red hair. She is extremely articulate, each sentence coming out fully formed with no hesitation around it, but there's a hint of something wild there too.

What was her initial reaction to the film? Firstly, she says, she couldn't believe how much her children had grown in a year. And secondly, "Take a bloody nap, Samantha, you look so tired! I was just running on fumes, because it was eight years, plus before that I was in the Senate office. I didn't recognise the level of exhaustion."

Both her children were born during her tenure at the White House — Declan is now 8, and Rian is 5. We see quite a bit of her son in the film, which gives a credible insight into how she had to juggle her personal life with her professional responsibilities. She made the decision early on that her children (who are looked after by a nanny) would not be hidden from the public.

"I didn't agonise over the questions that a lot of other parents might agonise over, like whether it was too much exposure for your child. All things considered, to keep them away would mean less time with them." This began in 2013, when both Declan and Rian attended the Senate confirmation hearing for her job as US Ambassador to the UN.

"My daughter didn't make it through the whole thing, but my son did and after the hearing he jumped into my arms to congratulate me and be reunited after several hours of gruelling interrogation, and this scrum of photographers started snapping. He was kind of a showman, smiling and doing things I never thought he would because normally he can never sit still for a photograph."

Those images were widely reproduced and Power had a huge response from women impressed that her children were so much a part of her life despite her important political career.

"For me it was inevitable that they should be there, as it would be for a lot of working mothers. But this feedback — I'd never been in an outward-facing government role before, so there was the public dimension of being a UN ambassador that I had to get used to, but the fact that everything I did could be life-affirming, or its opposite, was news to me.

"I was made aware of it by that moment and I carried that through all the time I was ambassador. My kids were part of everything, and I was very public about the challenge I had with the balancing act."

Her son, she says, helped to keep her feet on the ground. When she came home late she would explain it was because of something to do with Russia and show him a map. He'd be unimpressed. "'Putin, Putin, Putin … ' he complained. 'When is it going to be Declan, Declan, Declan?'"

"It was right after Russia had invaded Crimea and I had had a memorable clash with my Russian counterpart, and I told Declan what I thought was a really good put-down line I had come up with, how I had really nailed it, and I was feeling all pleased with myself." Declan put her in her place: "And? Did it work? Did the Russians leave Crimea?"

Samantha Power was born in Dublin. Her mother was a doctor, a kidney specialist; her father a dentist. He was also a heavy drinker, and Power spent quite a lot of time in the basement of a pub called Hartigan's, reading Enid Blyton. When she was 9, her parents split up because of her father's drinking, she says. Divorce was not an option at that time, but she moved with her mother, her brother and the man who would become her stepfather to America, initially to Pittsburgh and then to Atlanta.

It was difficult, in those days, for her to keep in contact with her father, to whom she had been extremely close. "I wish I could have been more in touch. He was meant to visit and he always said, 'When I get sorted' — and he never got sorted. It's a source of great sadness."

He died when Power was 14. She played a lot of basketball, and studied history at Yale. Her political awakening came one summer, when she was interning for a TV station and saw footage of Tiananmen Square.

In 1993 she decided to go to the Balkans and become a foreign correspondent at the height of the Yugoslav wars, travelling on her own "with an early laptop as heavy as a table", living firstly in Zagreb and then Sarajevo; she was there for two and a half years, working as a stringer for the Economist, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. But it didn't feel like enough.

"I had an activist soul," she has told the Irish Times. She returned to America and went to Harvard Law School. In her second year there, based on her study of genocide, she wrote an essay that would become the foundation of A Problem from Hell — a 640-page book about America in the age of genocide. Initially she couldn't find a publisher for it; in 2003 it won a Pulitzer Prize.

At the time, Barack Obama was a young state senator in Illinois; he was impressed by the book and in early 2005, by this time a US senator, he invited Power to dinner. "If you'd asked me at the time what was the most inspiring, hopeful thing that has happened to the States in a long time, I would have said, this new guy Barack Obama."

Power had just got a faculty position at Harvard and was researching her second book, Chasing the Flame, about the diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in Iraq after a bomb blew up the UN HQ. She was so impressed with Obama that evening that she volunteered to work for him on the spot.

"I had just had a big promotion, and I'd had only one drink, and I heard myself saying, 'Let me leave Harvard and come and work for you'. And he said, 'I don't have a job for you.' But I didn't care — I must have been quite taken by him. I was just an early convert to the same qualities that made him such an overwhelmingly popular president."

Asked to describe his outstanding qualities, she chooses her words carefully. "Measured, calm, deliberative, decisive, a person of conviction but also realistic, funny, irreverent, and of course charismatic." When he ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency against Hillary Clinton, Power joined his campaign team.

But in 2008, on a book tour, she gave an interview to a journalist from the Scotsman. She took a call from a colleague who detailed some unsavoury tactics that Clinton's team was engaging in. After hanging up, she vented about Clinton to the journalist. "She is a monster too — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything." The journalist made it into a scoop. It exploded in the media and Power resigned from the Obama campaign.

"The reporter took liberties that, in retrospect, I would not have taken as a reporter given how things unfolded," she says now, "but I said this idiotic thing in the presence of a journalist and lost my temper and was so unprofessional. I was embarrassed and mortified. The thing I was most focused on was, 'Does Hillary think I actually think this?' Because I had such admiration for her as a person, who blazed the trail for people like me, who cared about women and kids and her legal work — she's amazing. So I became fixated on whether I would ever have the chance to tell her in person — not just by letter, which of course I did immediately."

At the time Power was in a relationship with Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, a friend of Obama's who was working as legal adviser to the campaign. They were married in the summer of 2008. As a wedding present, Power's great friend and mentor, diplomat Richard Holbrooke, brokered a meeting with Clinton for Power to apologise. (Of which Obama said, "Gee, most people get toasters.")

"It was just to tell her straight up that I was still haunted by it; we were natural allies and she was gracious when we spoke," says Power.

Current US president Donald Trump with former US president Barack Obama. Photo / Getty Images
Current US president Donald Trump with former US president Barack Obama. Photo / Getty Images

In January 2009, Power became special assistant to the President and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council, until February 2013. Later that year she was named US Ambassador to the UN.

Power is now making up for lost time with her children, and writing a memoir.

If there is something that still preys on her mind constantly, it is Syria. "I look at videos of these horrific massacres — I make myself look at them, because it's a reminder of the human stakes of what's happening. We really tried on Syria and the results were uninspired, to say the least.

"Throughout, I felt I was failing to come up with an idea that could convince my colleagues or the President that there was any way forward. I don't have any clearer sense today of what that could be; there was no silver bullet. I do know that I never stopped trying, and nor did John Kerry. We never stopped bringing ideas into the mix; it wasn't like anybody ever gave up.

"I sense that the current administration has kind of given up, without ever having really tried." The current administration. Inevitably, the spectre of Trump materialises. Has his presidency been worse than she anticipated?

"So much worse. I mean, he's pretty much set out to do everything he said he would, but I think it has traditionally been the case that the presidency changes the occupant of the White House.

"There are so many traditions, so many constraints — the grandeur and the sense of sleeping where Roosevelt slept, being where Churchill hung out — the idea that this might tame some of his wilder, erratic impulses.

"But what has really surprised me is the utter absence of taming, or of other people taming him, the office or history taming him, his own slumping poll numbers taming him — none of this has happened.'

"So the fact that he came in as a wild, impulsive, vulgar, unstable leader is not a huge surprise but the fact that, a year in, when he has very few results, that that is not causing him to reassess himself, is quite striking."

Trump's commitment to reversing all the things that Obama's government achieved — a list that includes everything from participating in the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal to Michelle Obama's initiative to regulate healthy school lunches — is, feels Power, a sort of manifestation of paranoia.

"He's obsessed with Obama," she says. "It's bizarre. He's the President of the United States of America. It's like you got the girl in the end, you get married — and all you can think about is the person she used to date."

As Ben Rhodes says in the film, Obama's team were "reaching for a world that ought to be", and the sincerity of their struggle is convincing. One of the most poignant scenes is Rhodes sitting on a step outside the White House after the election results are in, completely lost for words. Greg Barker caught that himself, on a small camera.

The end of the film focuses on Obama's last foreign trip, which took place in late 2016, after the election. Barker had initially thought Greece, one of three stops, a slightly random destination. "Then I realised why — they were going to Greece to talk about democracy. I think they anticipated what was going to come out about Russia. The speech was in [Athens], the birthplace of democracy, and it was as if Obama was pointing a finger at Russia, saying, 'Don't mess with the system'."

The Final Year is on Netflix now.