A- Political documentary
Directed by Greg Barker
What’s it like to work for the commander of the deadliest military in the world, even if your job is keeping the peace? Greg Barker’s documentary, The Final Year, follows Barak Obama’s foreign policy team over the year 2016. The film introduces you to two important but relatively unknown members of the team: UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Strategic Communications Advisor Ben Rhodes. It also brings you closer to Secretary of State John Kerry, and even, just a little, to President 44, himself.
I never feel comfortable grading political documentaries. Am I basing my opinion on the film’s cinematic merits, or on whether it confirms my own political beliefs. Would I give an A- to a film produced by Fox News? I don’t know. But I gave a C- to Michael Moore’s last work. But then, Moore’s work is straight-up propaganda. Barker, on the other hand, introduces us to some very important people, and allows us to make our own decisions about them.
But let’s be clear. The Final Year is targeted to people who voted for Obama and Clinton. Conservatives will hate it, assuming any will ever see it.
The film follows Power and Rhodes as they deal with various international issues. These include the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s speech at Hiroshima (the first one by a leader of the country that dropped the bomb), and, of course, the big, horrible mess that is Syria.
Samantha Power seems driven by compassion. A journalist before she became a diplomat, she covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and wrote the book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In the film we see her comforting parents deprived of their children via the massive Boko Haram kidnapping. She likes to make one-on-one contact. She’s also an impressive basketball player.
Ben Rhodes’s resume isn’t as impressive as Power’s, but he’s relatively new to this sort of thing. He tells Barker’s camera how, as a young man, 9/11 set him on the path of improving the world and pursuing peace (like Rhodes, Kerry, and Obama, he acknowledges that war is sometimes inevitable). Among other chores, he wrote several of Obama’s speeches.
Rhodes tended to speak the most to Barker’s camera and microphone (or perhaps more of Power’s talk ended on the cutting room floor). In one scene, Rhodes complains about a conservative reporter asking him if climate change is a bigger threat than ISIS. Of course it is, but that answer would allow Fox and similar news outlets to say that the administration is soft on ISIS.
Early in the film, The Final Year humanizes John Kerry – something he failed to do himself in the 2004 election. After climbing into a limousine, he pops out quickly and runs inside. He forgot his phone.
For most of the film, the audience knows something horrible that Power, Rhodes, Kerry, and Obama can’t foresee: a President Donald Trump who, with the help of a Republican congress, will set out to destroy everything Obama has done. That knowledge casts a shadow over everything in the documentary.
To a certain extent, The Final Year feels like a look back at some sort of wonderful Camelot. But what happened was real, and a lot of it didn’t turn out the way it should. But the film captures a year when the White House was at least trying to make a better world.