Review: 'The Final Year'

Thursday, January 18, 2018
A still from 'The Final Year'.

Exit, Stage Left

2017 / USA / 89 min. / Directed by Greg Baker / Opens in select cities on Jan. 19, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

In a time of marked polarization and hostility in American politics, the most obvious dilemma that faces Greg Barker’s new documentary feature, The Final Year, is the kneejerk partisan response of the viewer. The film provides a behind-the-scenes, generally chronological depiction of Barack Obama’s foreign policy team over the course of 2016, as the administration’s priorities began to shift towards its long-term legacy. In its outlook, the feature is unabashedly progressive and internationalist, taking it as a given that the viewer broadly concurs with Obama's policy aims. Liberal filmgoers—especially those with a wonky interest in global affairs—are accordingly primed to regard the film in a positive, if sorrowful, light. Conservatives, on the other hand, are likely to spend the film’s duration either stewing over Barker’s lionization of the Obama era, or gleefully smirking at the administration’s fumbles, failures, and post-November despair.

Director Greg Barker is a seasoned, if undistinguished, documentary veteran, with a filmography that focuses predominantly on splashy topics related to politics, terrorism, and the military. (His director and co-director credits include half a dozen episodes of PBS’s esteemed public affairs program Frontline.) The overall “Yes We Can, But…” tone that he privileges in The Final Year certainly suggests that the filmmaker is counting on former Obama voters to turn out in the name of ideological nostalgia, making up for the presumed absence of conservative ticket-holders. Paradoxically, however, the most compelling aspects of The Final Year are those that are largely incidental to party and ideology. 

Unquestionably, The Final Year is not formally stimulating enough to qualify as “good cinema” in the usual sense, nor is it a galvanic political document in the league of Robert Drew’s Kennedy films (1960-64) or The War Room (1993). Barker plainly relishes the access that he and his crew have been afforded, and the film is careful not to tread too roughly any center-left toes. Hysterical right-wing media gasbags will doubtlessly label it revisionist propaganda, but the film is undeniably friendly to the former President and his agenda. There's virtually no discussion of policies that earned the President a measure of animus from the left, such as drone warfare and targeted killings. Obama himself makes a few appearances in the film, usually popping in to deliver a stirring quote to the camera, but he is more of a removed presence than a character, befitting a documentary focused on his presidential achievements (and disappointments) rather than the man himself.

The film’s real subject is Obama’s foreign policy first-stringers: Secretary of State John Kerry; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; and Deputy National Security Advisor and foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes. (A few interview snippets also feature National Security Advisor Susan Rice, although she is a peripheral figure.) In the abstract, Kerry is the most intriguing of these characters—at 72 years of age, the former senator’s knowledge, doggedness, and 16-hour work days awe and intimidate younger members of the diplomatic corps—but The Final Year is not really concerned with individual political portraiture.

The primary narrative that Baker establishes is that of the unending quest for the President’s ear, and the tension between Power’s idealism and Rhodes’ pragmatism. This is, naturally, a simplification of the pair's complex and slippery political philosophies, as well as an exaggeration of relatively minute policy differences between internationalist liberals. Still, Barker is fairly canny in selecting his two principals, as they make for a tidy contrast. Power spends her time shuttling back and forth between Washington and U.N. headquarters in New York, while also putting her feet on the ground at human rights flashpoints around the globe. Rhodes, meanwhile, has the strategic advantage of near-constant physical proximity to the President, both at the White House and during the Commander-in-Chief's international visits. 

These differences in terms of access, priorities, and vantage point generate some mild intra-administration melodrama. Rhodes speaks of vigorous arguments behind closed doors, although on camera everyone is amicable enough. However, the most substantial advantage to loosely framing the film around Power and Rhodes is that such an approach provides an agreeable rhythm to what otherwise might have been a shapeless, this-then-that record of events. By repeatedly switching the film’s viewpoint from the State Deparment to the White House to far-flung corners of the globe, Barker keeps the film humming along through 89 minutes of policy esoterica, diplomatic schmoozing, and crisis management—a running time that feels just about right for the subject matter.

Hovering over this day-to-day Executive Branch drama is the larger question of what issues to tackle in the administration’s limited remaining time, and how Obama’s liberal legacy can best be preserved. It’s in that respect that The Final Year is most fascinating, for reasons that have less to do with the the particulars of this White House than with the structure of the American political system. The film represents a rare peek at a sitting executive’s advisors as they prepare for the bloodless coup that ensues every four or eight years in American life. Hardcore political junkies are the only ones likely to find it outright enthralling, and Barker does nothing to make the fly-on-the-wall raw material particularly invigorating. However, there’s an undeniable novelty in being able to witness this peculiar winter period in the lifespan of a presidential administration. Obama’s foreign policy gurus are obliged to keep up with all the unceasing demands of their daily jobs, while simultaneously seeking ways to lock down the President’s accomplishments so that a future, hostile administration cannot unravel them.

With the hindsight afforded by a January 2018 release, the elephant in the room is, of course, Donald Trump. To state the obvious, Barker did not know how the November 2016 presidential election would turn out when he first began documenting the Obama administration’s final twelve months. However, the apprehensive yet guardedly optimistic tone that dominates conversation throughout most of the film suggests an administration that expected to pass the baton to its own party. After the election, a shell-shocked, despairing mood prevails, to be replaced in the final days by exhausted resignation and frantic, last-minute efforts at productive diplomacy.

For liberal viewers, there’s likely to be an element of post-traumatic agony in witnessing the Obama era end in such a colossally sour manner all over again. This is at its most acute during Power’s election night party, where luminaries such as Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem wait expectantly for the ultimate glass ceiling to be shattered, only to see their hopes crumble. This doesn’t stop the film’s subjects or Barker from concluding The Final Year on a generally positive tone that conveniently fits Obama’s “Know Hope” political slogan and brand. However, in the Age of Trump, credibly peddling this sanguine perspective entails looking years into the future and even beyond American borders. Barker’s film ultimately positions politically engaged, college-age admirers of Obama from Washington to Cameroon to Laos as the future champions of a democratic, cooperative global community. Cold comfort, perhaps, to progressive American filmgoers, but it’s all The Final Year has to offer in the way of reassurance for the next three years.

Rating: C+