HBO documentary offers inside look at Biden’s ‘chaotic’ first year
(The Hill) – A new documentary goes behind the scenes of President Biden’s “chaotic” first year in office, touting “unprecedented access” to administration officials.
“He came in with a government that was in almost complete disarray, not only because of COVID and not only because they had a vaccine — to Trump’s credit that worked — but no plan to distribute it, but because you had a government that had basically not been fully operating with adversaries for months on end as President Trump was so engaged in trying to overturn the election results,” says New York Times White House and national security correspondent David Sanger.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is an executive producer of the new HBO documentary “Year One: A Political Odyssey,” premiering Wednesday at 9 p.m. Sanger also appears in the doc in a Greek chorus-type role, interpreting and analyzing the highs and lows of the Biden administration as it attempted to manage multiple crises at home and abroad.
The film opens on Inauguration Day last year, with former White House press secretary Jen Psaki recalling the “huge security issues” in Washington just weeks after the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot by Trump supporters at the Capitol.
“We couldn’t even get close enough to drive here on our first day. So actually all the senior staff all met at the zoo, and we got on buses and we all were watching the inauguration on our phones,” Psaki tells the filmmakers.
Biden’s team also had to deal with the ongoing pandemic, as well as the 45th president’s unfounded claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Trump’s demeanor, White House chief of staff Ron Klain says, was “oddly what we expected.”
“His behavior as president was unprecedented, so there’s no reason to think his post-presidential behavior would be unprecedented I suppose,” he said.
“We made a conscious decision when the president came into office — we didn’t want to make his presidency a continued campaign and battle with Donald Trump,” says Psaki, who stepped down from her role as press secretary in May.
The project, Sanger said, is “pretty critical” of Biden’s handling of the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August of last year.
“We have that moment where Biden is announcing in April that we’re going to pull out and then they don’t put together a plan to get the [Special Immigrant Visa recipients] — the people who had worked for the American military, the translators, people who worked for journalists — they didn’t have a plan to get them out in time because they thought that they had more time,” Sanger said.
“Their estimates were that they had a year and a half before the Taliban would take over. And they misjudged everything,” he added.
In the film, CIA Director William Burns describes how Biden dropped his head down on the Situation Room table in total silence after learning that Americans had been killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul during attempts to evacuate troops and civilians from the country.
“Unquestionably, that day was the hardest day of the first year,” Klain says in “Year One.”
“No question about it,” Klain continued. “[Biden] is the president of the United States. He is the commander in chief. He is also a father and someone who sent his own son to go serve in the Middle East.”
Following the Afghanistan chaos and a resurgence of COVID-19, there was a sense that “things were really falling apart” for Biden at the end of the summer of 2021. But after working to reestablish diplomatic ties and rebuild alliances with allies in the early days of his presidency, Sanger says Biden’s administration “kind of got their footing” after a tumultuous six months.
“Just doing those basics in the first year paid off as the second year began because they actually had a cohesive NATO that’s hung together on Ukraine [following Russia’s invasion] and pumped both intelligence and arms into the country at a pace that I don’t think any of us expected.”
Filmmakers faced their own challenges as they attempted to snag interviews in the middle of a pandemic.
“COVID made it almost impossible to film, I would say, through middle to late spring of 2021,” Sanger said. “We couldn’t sit down and do filmed interviews because they had a 15-minute rule for the length of meetings. And then they had a five-person rule in the room.”
Between the interviewee and interviewer, as well as accommodating lighting and sound techs, Sanger said the “Year One” team had to get a bit creative.
“At one point we wired people for sound and then kept the sound person in a different room, so it wouldn’t count against the quota,” he recalled with a laugh.
While the documentary features interviews with a slew of Team Biden players — including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, among others — Sanger said he and director John Maggio didn’t attempt to get the commander in chief himself to sit down for a one-on-one.
“We really wanted to tell the story of the people who were trying to implement his policies, sort of give you an on-the-ground view of it and the decisionmaking and the debate,” the “Perfect Weapon” author said.
In addition to archival footage of Trump, just a single Republican lawmaker appeared in the film.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Trump ally, suggested that Democrats were laser-focused on Jan. 6 in order to avoid talking about “30-year high inflation,” increasing urban crime, illegal immigration and “the attacks on the First Amendment.”
Although Sanger said the documentary’s creators “interviewed many more” GOP voices, other Republicans “didn’t have a lot to say about Biden’s first year, which is really what this was about.”
Many also declined to appear on-camera, Sanger said.
“I don’t know if it’s that they thought we were going to ask them some about Jan. 6. I don’t know if they thought that we were going to ask them about election denial,” he explained.
“We had a few others who had agreed to do it. But let’s face it, in a Washington that is as polarized as this is, if you’re a Republican member of Congress, you’re not sitting through a lot of what’s happening inside the administration and all that.”
The film wraps up as Biden delivered his first State of the Union address to Congress in March. Sanger said, as a journalist, it “absolutely kills you” to have to put a period on a story that’s not over.
“It’s easy to forget that the day that [Biden] gave the State of the Union address, we still thought the Russian conventional military was going to roll through Ukraine and just take the place in a few days,” Sanger said.
“There’s so much more to the to the story. But it’s a documentary and you, need a beginning point and an ending point. The title was ‘Year One,’ and so we thought if we were going to be true to that, we sort of really had to define it from those two bookmarks.”
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