The 2016 presidential election was intense and, for some, borderline traumatic. But whoever your preferred candidate was, the election commanded attention. Arguments on social media were routine, with progressives’ sense of disbelief slowly giving way to a dismay from which many have not recovered.
“The Final Year,” a documentary by Greg Barker, invites viewers to relive this period, as the filmmaker follows the Obama administration over the course of his last full year in office, focusing primarily on foreign policy and the administration’s stated desire to do good, within a limited timeline. The fly-on-the-wall film is fascinating at times but less than essential.
The film zeros in on a small cadre of White House staffers, with the president mostly relegated to cameo appearances — a minor character in his own administration. The main players are deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes; the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power; Secretary of State John Kerry; and national security adviser Susan Rice. Foreign policy is their wheelhouse, as Barker focuses on official visits to such places as Laos and Japan and the dull realities of statecraft. The presidential campaign is only a backdrop for this group of bureaucrats — most of whom simply did not believe Donald Trump would win — and the film’s climax shows them to be flabbergasted by his victory.
As a filmmaker, Barker is unassuming and deferential to a fault, too often portraying the film’s subjects in the best possible light, even when their disagreements and flaws are revealed. They are doubtlessly intelligent, dedicated public servants, but “The Final Year” leans toward hagiography. At one point, Rhodes is shown working on a speech in an unassuming office, typing out Obama’s lofty rhetoric on a government-issued laptop. This unglamorous vignette feels like an insincere attempt at sincerity, highlighting the mundane realities of government service while showing off moral clarity. Such “humblebrag” moments are frequent.
“The Final Year” is not, however, completely cynical, finding genuine moments of both intellectual and empathetic depth. Power, in particular — an Irish immigrant — comes across as a deeply intelligent and committed public servant who, as she meets with diplomats and atrocity victims alike, is keenly aware of what makes America exceptional. The documentary includes debate over how to handle the mounting humanitarian crisis in Syria, with Power and Rhodes effectively representing two sides of Obama’s conscience. There are limits to Barker’s access, unfortunately, so we hear postmortems instead of seeing the arguments play out.
Most frustrating is how “The Final Year” teeters toward insight, only to turn its attention to personalities. A lame-duck administration is a bizarre thing: As Obama often observed, two terms in office can leave an administration out of touch. But the staff members shown in “The Final Year” aren’t nearly so self-aware, seemingly thinking little of history as they focus on the most recent foreign policy crisis. Instead of looking at the big picture, Barker turns his attention to these particular staffers and their agendas, limiting the scope of his film — not to mention its potential audience.
The shadow of Trump looms large over “The Final Year,” even though its subjects only rarely mention him by name. But if such moments are uncomfortable, the footage from election night is excruciating. As Power watches the returns with Gloria Steinem and other prominent women, they’re all silent, and devastated. In one long take, Rhodes goes out for some fresh air after the results are in, only to find himself rendered inarticulate by what he is feeling.
Even among this film’s self-limiting audience of Obama fans, viewers will have little to gain, beyond a trauma relived. The film ends with a soulful rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” playing under shots of West Wing staffers vacating their offices. In this context, Barker somehow seems to miss the song’s message of moving on. It speaks to his film’s shortcomings.
‘THE FINAL YEAR’
Starring: Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power
Rating: Unrated; contains strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Theaters: AFS Cinema