USA: Far from the final word about the end of the Obama administration.

The Final Year

Greg Barker

USA, 2017, 89 min.

Sometimes with documentaries it is painfully obvious that the film that ends up in theatres is not the film the makers thought they were making. And The Final Year, Greg Barker’s new film about the last year of the Obama administration, is, for painfully obvious reasons, possibly the phenomenon’s epitome.

Greg Barker

Barker’s focus is on the foreign policy team of Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. He gets decent access to them, following the trio from Washington to missions abroad in Laos, Nigeria, Japan, Greenland and elsewhere. I don’t generally give a damn about films that have “humanizing” as their goal – I already know people are people – but I have to admit that a few moments had me genuinely moved. Power, often ridiculed by the left as an interventionist hawk, comes off downright decent in meetings with the mothers of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, scenes with her kids and a citizenship-granting ceremony for, among others, her maid, wherein Power breaks down in tears remembering her own immigration from Ireland. Rhodes is definitely a bit of a jerk, but a smart one; his utter speechlessness on the evening of November 8, 2016, speaks volumes (and volumes, and volumes…). And Kerry – it’s easy to forget, given the very visible slings and arrows suffered in a life lived in public, but he’s basically a hero; when he says, again and again, that he’s an optimist, that he will never give up on a situation if he thinks there’s any chance of a solution, you believe him.

Barker’s access to the ex-president is significantly less impressive. His only interview with Obama, as far as I could tell, comes backstage at an event in Greece during his last trip abroad, and nothing very interesting comes up in it. There are other problems. For one, Barker’s access pretty clearly dried up after the election; he has Kerry saying that he wants to do everything he can to help the transition, to impress upon the newcomers the gravity of the job, but we never see Trump – or any Republican at all – enter the White House. Rhodes’ reaction said it all: it’s not even that nobody thought this was going to happen; nobody even thought about thinking about it. It was an absurdity, unthinkable. There was no contingency plan. And now all they achieved is subject to the whims of a dingbat.

Another problem is that details about specific situations are largely lost among the sheer number of foreign policy initiatives the administration was pursuing that year (extending, though the film doesn’t explicitly mention it, back to 2015), including the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the normalization of relations with Cuba, the Syria situation, the Russia situation. Any one of these could be a film into itself; in The Final Year, they are packaged together as examples of Obama’s strategy of smart diplomacy in lieu of violence or other bombast.

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