For most of the 90 days director Greg Barker and his crew followed President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team for “The Final Year,” they surely believed they were making a documentary about the merits of diplomatic engagement, which led to hard-won achievements like the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and the normalization of relations with Cuba. But Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 presidential election casts the film in a different light, exposing the fragility of policies and agreements that can be upended with the stroke of a pen. Yet “The Final Year” clings to a precooked thesis about the Obama Doctrine that misses the behind-the-scenes drama and candor of superior political documentaries like “The War Room” or “Weiner.” Political junkies, particularly those pining for the last eight years, may want to see Obama’s ideals in action, but any election-year tension is conspicuously absent.
Shot over 90 days in 21 countries, “The Final Year” follows administration officials who operate under the core belief that policies have human consequences and that it’s necessary to leave the Washington bubble to understand the needs and struggles of those affected. For Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. during Obama’s second term, that principle was rooted in her experience as a journalist covering the Yugoslav wars and her studies on genocide and displaced peoples. And when the president would go on foreign visits, he would often host public forums to listen and respond to the views of young people, promoting the idea that ordinary individuals could have a say in how the world is shaped.
Power and Ben Rhodes, Obama’s influential Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, were part of Obama’s team before he was elected president, and all three share deeply held convictions about diplomacy as the best avenue toward peace. For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry, the other major subject in “The Final Year,” relished the opportunity to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam, ending a long, painful chapter in the history between the two countries and offering closure to his own history as a Vietnam War hero turned prominent antiwar activist. The administration’s willingness to reckon with past sins also led to Obama’s sober acknowledgement of the secret bombing campaign in Laos and his unprecedented speech in Hiroshima.
In all the jet-setting from Southeast Asia to Africa to Greenland, as well as the offices and boardrooms of the West Wing and the U.N. General Assembly, Barker and his team suggest the hard work and commitment necessary to address climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the ongoing wars in which the U.S. is taking an active role. Yet they also make an effort to pick up on human moments like Power negotiating a doughnut-based agreement with her kids or Rhodes lost in endless stammer on the morning after Trump’s victory. But such candor is rare, despite the impression of access the film so carefully cultivates.
It may have been unusual for Barker to get this much time among high-level officials, but “The Final Year” isn’t a fly-on-the-wall production by any means. The Obama team was always expert at protecting and polishing its image, and the film happily acquiesces with a highlight reel of diplomatic missions, including Kerry observing first-hand the effects of climate change in Greenland, Obama giving his speech at Hiroshima, Power pleading for the return of girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Rhodes basking in his successful deal-making in Cuba. Not that any of these achievements should be minimized, but there’s a promotional quality to the documentary that flattens out the political drama.
Add to that the splash of cold water on Election Night and “The Final Year” feels like the end of a story no one intended to tell. With the U.S. backing out of the Paris climate deal, decimating the State Department, and, most recently, reintroducing its trade embargo against Cuba, President Trump has leveled all those tough negotiations like a kid kicking down a sand castle. Try as it might, the film can’t spin its way out of despair.