With a crisp focus on America’s foreign policy endeavors in the context of a growing tension between democracy and autocracy, the new documentary Year One: A Political Odyssey paints the picture of President Joe Biden’s first year in office.
The documentary, which came out on HBO Max on Oct. 19, draws from extensive interviews with high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, and Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns.
Director John Maggio built a star-studded lineup to break down the challenges, policies, and perspectives that came with an unprecedented chain of events in the first 12 months of the Biden presidency.
The film heavily scrutinizes the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the first major international issue of the administration. It juxtaposes interviews with qualified, experienced bureaucrats with commentary on the blatant mismanagement of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Maggio exposes how the Biden administration—which presented itself as a supposed return to normalcy after a tumultuous four years under former President Donald Trump—mishandled a crucial foreign policy matter.
The documentary roots its success in high-quality interviews with high-profile political players. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s reaction to the takeover of Afghanistan magnifies the exclusive access granted to the filmmakers, as his descriptions of phone calls during the fall of Kabul guide the film’s conversation on the U.S. response and the international fallout that arises.
Year One offers a raw look at the messy and unorganized conclusion of America’s longest war and the consequences that came with it—including the death of 13 U.S. service members in a Kabul airport attack on Aug. 26, 2021. In a poignant interview, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain deemed it the “worst day” of Biden’s first year.
The strongest and most impressive parts of the film are accounts of the diplomatic meetings with leaders from Russia and China, which provide both raw dialogue from these encounters and eye-opening testimonies from Sullivan, Blinken, and Burns.
Maggio incorporates captivating background music and an exquisite attention to detail in the leadup to these meetings and includes commentary from experts such as New York Times reporter David Sanger, who analyzes the location, history, and steep consequences of the leaders’ conversations.
In contrast to its framing of the situation in Afghanistan, the film paints the administration as resolutely prepared for Russian aggression in Ukraine. The U.S. comes equipped with formidable intelligence capabilities and many officials’ prior experiences with Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014.
Using satellite imagery of Russia’s buildup along the Ukrainian border and commentary from Blinken and Sullivan, the film shows a Biden team that has learned its lessons from Afghanistan and is eager to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine.
Though the film boasts an impressive number of interviews with government officials, it fails to utilize more than just a few comments from figures like the French Ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Étienne and British Ambassador to the U.S. Karen Pierce, both of whom sat down for an interview but only had a mere 15 seconds of airtime.
Vice President Kamala Harris also barely comes up in the film—a surprising occurrence considering how much the administration has emphasized Harris’ integral role in foreign affairs.
The film also severely lacks conversations on domestic policy, with the exception of the COVID-19 response, the insurrection on Jan. 6, and the inauguration. Those three events start off the 85-minute documentary, but all of them are covered minimally. Key domestic events like the passing of the bipartisan infrastructure package, the rise in inflation, and the border crisis are left out completely.
Year One is a film entrenched in the global challenges posed to a new American president and the urgency to defend democracy around the world.