Many documentary filmmakers and reporters dream of getting White House access to take a fly-on-the-wall look at the inner workings of an administration.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Maggio and New York Times reporter David Sanger must have thought they hit a jackpot when they got approval to film “Year One: A Political Odyssey,” an HBO documentary on President Biden’s first year in office that airs Wednesday at 9 p.m.
They curiously chose to focus only on the challenges facing the new administration on COVID-19 and national security. The administration’s economic record, which has featured the highest inflation in 40 years, the end of US energy independence and controversial giveaways like college-loan forgiveness, is completely ignored. The only outside critic who escapes the cutting-room floor is Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan, who materializes on screen with a single quotation on Biden’s politics of distraction.
I have no doubt that Maggio and Sanger were hoping to tell a success story. What they got was a window on the hubris and cluelessness of many in the Biden orbit as they careened from a rocky vaccine-distribution plan to the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan to the buildup to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Given those first-year distractions, it’s no surprise that neither Biden nor his tongue-challenged Vice President Kamala Harris thought it wise to sit for an interview with the filmmakers.
But lots of Biden supporting players show up on camera. They are often candid. Secretary of State Tony Blinken (who went to college with Sanger) admits to just how surprised the White House was by the collapse of the Afghan regime. “President Ashraf Ghani said to me on the phone, ‘I will stay and fight to the death,’ ” Blinken remembers. “He fled the country the next day.”
“It became clear that we were going to be dealing with much higher case counts than we thought,” recalls Andy Slavic, a top official on the COVID-19 team who witnessed its overconfidence melt away. Other players, including White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and climate czar John Kerry, stick to party-line platitudes. As he got deeper into filming “Year One,” Maggio admits that “by the end of the summer, it just felt like the wheels were coming off. . . . Suddenly they became the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
But he thinks some stabilization comes with the Ukraine crisis, the segment where “Year One” provides its most insightful moments. CIA Director William Burns is sent on a secret mission to Moscow to personally warn Putin of the consequences of aggressive action. “I found Putin unapologetic. His appetite for risk had grown,” he tells Maggio. Biden begins assembling US allies in a coalition, skillfully enough for the film to argue that the Biden team learned something from its Afghan debacle. “That was kind of their saving grace for ‘Year One,’ ” Maggio claims.
Because of Biden’s lack of participation in the film he only appears in archival footage. That gives the impression he was off stage during most of the dramatic moments of his first year in office. Indeed, that may be closer to the actual truth, the more evidence piles up of Biden’s growing detachment from much of his own administration.
Instant documentaries almost always suffer from looking rushed and incomplete. But “Year One” has enough insight and behind-the-scenes intimacy to form a picture of Team Biden during its rocky first year.
Call these people “The Not So Best and Brightest,” a group of high achievers completely convinced of their good intentions and largely unaware of the limitations that quality places on actually getting good results.