The Final Year, a documentary by Greg Barker, portrays the final year of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team as they make the most of the precious little time they have left to effect change on the world’s most significant challenges. These include: Syria, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, Boko Haram in West Africa, and normalizing relations with Cuba, to name a few. The film focuses on four figures (pictured above, left to right): Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications; Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations; John Kerry, Secretary of State; and President Barack Obama.
This being a film about 2016, they all know the clock is against them. They know the scale of the challenges they face, and that each will outlast them. And they know that many people, including many in their own country, hope they fail. But they continue their effort, working everyday to find diplomatic ways to, as the saying goes, make the world a better place.
The actions of diplomacy are sometimes momentous, but often monotonous. For the first two-thirds of the film (essentially January to September, 2016) director Barker does well to partner the daily tedium of flights-meetings-flights-meetings with the internal struggles of Obama diplomats. We see Power struggle with the dangers women face in the world; we see Kerry take one second to celebrate signing the Iran deal; we see Rhodes defend himself from a blistering New York Times profile. And, in seeing those and other moments, we realize what Barker wants us to know, that diplomatic work is hard, emotional, never-ending. Barker never finds a cinematic and connective story for this portion of The Final Year, but the access and the interviews make up for that fault.
But the real meat of The Final Year, the topic that many folks will be most curious to see, comes in the final third of the film. As Donald Trump rises in the polls, wins the Republican nomination, and becomes a threat to win the Presidency, Barker turns his focus to inter-personal struggles within the team. Primarily, this includes a debate between Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes on the positional differences they take in foreign policy, which reflects a core Obama Administration value: Rhodes (and Obama) seem to believe that that the world is good, and getting better. Power, on the other hand, sees that optimism as ignoring the harsh, violent world she encounters in her work. Power sees the world trending away from democratic norms, and towards nationalism. Rhodes/Obama see a growing inclusivity around the world.
This tension overlays everything in The Final Year, because even though Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes don’t know what is coming, the audience does. We know that the optimistic vision of the future will be set back, even if temporarily, by the election of Donald Trump. Now, we are a year into the Trump Presidency, and the Trump Doctrine–undo everything Obama did–is underway. From this side of the The Final Year, it’s hard to argue that Power is wrong and that Obama is right.
The most trying scene for this reviewer in The Final Year is election night. Barker shows Samantha Power’s election party, which included dozens of women diplomats, Madeline Albright, and Gloria Steinem. They’re gathered for an historic night, and they’re made to see it slip away from them, as a boorish, unqualified, anti-democratic cretin wins the election. It was during this scene that I started thinking about the other version of The Final Year that we could have gotten. One that showed a year of foreign efforts by serious, professional, empathetic women and men working to improve the lives of all global citizens, only to see that work continue under the State Department run by the Hillary Clinton Administration.
That film would have been an inspirational work about the trajectory of time and human goodness, as espoused by President Obama in this very documentary. That film would have been a victory lap.
Instead, The Final Year plays, despite Barker’s best efforts, like a tragedy. Because from the first moments, we all know what’s coming. Even the title, The Final Year, rings like a tragic reminder of what was lost. After election night, facing the reality of a President Trump, Samantha Power says, “Any thought that we could go gently into the night, that thought is vanquished.”
In Power’s words, Barker finds the anti-Trump message of his movie. Maybe the world is bound to improve, or maybe the trajectory is towards division and strife. It’s no matter, though, because, neither possibility allows those serious, professional, empathetic women and men to retire and leave the world to fend for itself in the era of Donald Trump.
–Christopher Zumski Finke