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Year One: HBO’s Biden White House documentary misses the mark on so many fronts

President Biden participates in a virtual call to congratulate the NASA JPL Perseverance team on the successful Mars landing

Here’s the deal, to borrow one of President Biden’s folksy exhortations, about Year One: A Political OdysseyHBO’s newly released documentary about the inner workings of his administration during its first year.

Don’t sit down to watch this film expecting some kind of newsy snapshot of the Biden White House — beset as it is right now by everything from nettlesome inflation to what to do about gas prices, Russia, the economy, and much more. Year One, which debuted on HBO and HBO Max on October 19, is concerned with how the Biden White House of 2021 set about responding to many of the challenges that have since either slid to the back burner or morphed into something completely different in 2022 — and, as such, the documentary will tell you almost nothing about the crucial issues of the day, nor the animating forces that will be determinative in next month’s midterm elections.

Recent days, for example, have seen the president give public remarks about everything from the threat of nuclear annihilation from Russia to his insistence (while snacking on an ice cream cone) that our economy is “strong as hell.” There’s none of that, of course, in Year One — which is the danger, I suppose, of anchoring a documentary project around a moment in the life of a presidential administration.

HBO documentary — Year One: A Political Odyssey

To the latter point, this film ends with Biden’s State of the Union address in March of this year. Barely weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, that’s sense thrown much of the globe into turmoil.


Year One comes from director John Maggio and was executive produced by New York Times reporter David Sanger. In taking viewers inside the Biden White House, it includes interviews with most of President Biden’s top cabinet chiefs like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a college friend of Sanger’s.

Will this HBO documentary change people’s perceptions one way or the other about the 46th president, especially ahead of the November midterm elections? That remains to be seen, but we’d probably learn toward assuming it’s doubtful. Year One, in fact, uses three of the most controversial and polarizing challenges that confronted the president and his team as a lens through which to tell a larger story.

“The whole film plays through the interplay of these three things: Covid, post-Jan. 6, and the international challenges,” Sanger told Politico. Additionally, the film ends with Biden’s first State of the Union address (from March of this year).

President Biden at the White HouseImage source: Oliver Contreras - Pool via CNP/MEGA

HBO’s official summary of the documentary adds that it “follows the President’s inner circle, taking viewers inside the White House, the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon, while it dives deep into America’s response to a number of unfolding historical events.”

They include: “the effort to immunize a nation against an ever-morphing pandemic, continued divisiveness following January 6th, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rise of autocratic regimes across the globe, and increasingly adversarial relations with two nuclear superpowers — Russia and China.”

To get a sense of the early days of the Biden administration that this HBO documentary team got access to, there was apparently a “15-minute rule” during some meetings early on in Biden’s term when Covid was raging to a greater degree than it is now.

The Year One documentary features interviews with, in addition to Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan; Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; and CIA director Bill Burns. The one glaring yet unsurprising omission — no chat with POTUS.


More HBO news: New on HBO Max: The latest movies and shows (October 2022)

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Andy Meek is a reporter who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.