Greg Barker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary The Final Year presents a fascinating exploration of the last year of the Barack Obama administration. Focusing specifically on Samantha Power (US Ambassador to the United Nations), Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor/speechwriter), John Kerry (US Secretary of State) and Susan Rice (National Security Advisor), the film observes the vigorous efforts by the administration to solidify several key presidential objectives as the end quickly approaches.
Touching on the administration’s achievements (e.g. the historic Cuba deal, the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear deal) and the missteps (e.g. the handling of the Syrian conflict), the film presents an interesting look at the complexities of life in government. This includes insight into the thought process on certain ideologies, the hours of discussions with foreign leaders and the differing opinions within the administration on the current state of the world. However, as Barker’s film points out, all the globetrotting and international negotiations received very little attention by the public.
The media was more interested in the tweets of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
While Donald Trump is not featured in the film, seen only briefly on television screens, his presence looms over the film. Knowing what is to come, and the impact that Trump’s presidency will have on many of the policies discussed in the film, gives The Final Year a somewhat somber feel. As we see through Rhode’s cocky demeanor months prior to the vote, the prospect of Trump winning was unimaginable. A point that crushingly hits home when Barker shows Power’s “glass ceiling shattering” election party – which featured the likes of Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem – and the devastated looks on the faces of those in the room.
Barker’s film may not be as hard hitting as it could have been as its commentary on Obama’s stumbles with foreign policy is treated with a gentle touch; and Susan Rice’s inclusion feels like an afterthought. However, The Final Year is an effective reminder of what can be achieved when the greater good is placed before self-interest. Though the film only gets a few short, but optimistic, scenes with Obama, it is Powers and Rhodes who provide the most intriguing and resonating moments. They remind us that is not only important for governments to see firsthand what is occurring internationally, but that public service is often a thankless job that goes well beyond one’s time in office.
In capturing the end of an era, The Final Year manages to leave viewers with a bittersweet feeling for what once was, and a flicker of hope for what can be achieved again.