Joe Biden’s Frenetic First Year Gets the Fly-on-the-Wall Treatment in New HBO Documentary
As Kabul fell last year, the Biden administration found itself in the midst of a full-blown crisis. “We were in intense conversations with the Afghan government throughout this period—in August and into the middle of the month—to help organize a peaceful transfer of power,” says Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “President [Ashraf] Ghani said to me on the phone that Saturday, ‘If the Taliban doesn’t agree and engage in good faith, then I will stay and fight to the death.’ That was Saturday. He fled the country the next day, on Sunday.”
“No notice?” someone behind the camera asks Blinken. “No notice,” Blinken replies.
The frustrations inside the White House are captured in Year One: A Political Odyssey, a documentary about Joe Biden’s first year that premieres Wednesday on HBO. New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger, who executive produced the film, told me he’s found throughout his career that there’s “a hunger for people to understand the mechanism of how big decisions are made in government.” With the forthcoming documentary, he said, “we just wanted to sort of put some storytelling and people behind them.”
Year One, which runs for about an hour and a half, is a look at the Biden administration’s national security challenges and the various factors influencing them in the background—from the ongoing pandemic to the fallout from January 6. The film takes place over 13 months, starting on Inauguration Day, with a locked-down DC still reeling from the Capitol attack, and ending with Biden’s first State of the Union this past March. Year One is organized by season and often feels like a high-speed tour through the challenges of Biden’s first year, from the vaccine rollout to foreign policy—US relations with China and Russia, the Afghanistan withdrawal—to divisiveness closer to home.
Within the first three minutes, various members of Biden’s team who sat for interviews—Blinken, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan—appear onscreen. Other insiders in the film include Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, White House chief of staff Ron Klain, CIA director William Burns, and former COVID response team member Andy Slavitt. There are some notable absences, however, with the biggest being that of Biden himself; the president largely appears in the film in archival news footage. For journalists, a lack of access to the president has caused frustration during Biden’s time in office. “We didn’t ask for it, actually,” Sanger told me over Zoom last week when I asked about getting a sit-down with Biden. “In part because, you know, we understood what the result would likely be,” he said. “But frankly, we thought that the story was best told by the people who were sort of out in the world trying to go make this happen and pull the levers.” The only person who didn’t sit down with Sanger’s team despite being asked was Vice President Kamala Harris, he said.
The documentary has echoes of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, in which the starring roles go to staffers such as George Stephanopoulos and James Carville. Sanger also appears at times “to provide the connective tissue between events or an interpretive flare on events,” as he put it, which is not dissimilar to what he does in his news analysis. “You’re sitting down with a camera, with interviews with people, and while you hope they’re gonna be candid, the fact of the matter is they’re not gonna be that self-critical with a camera running,” said Sanger, explaining the need for such commentary. Other outside voices chime in too, from political scientist Ian Bremmer to Russia expert Fiona Hill to the British and French ambassadors. Representatives Jim Jordan and Adam Schiff are also interviewed.