×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Final Year’

Greg Barker's documentary follows President Obama's foreign policy team, but stumbles on the unscripted ending.

Director:
Greg Barker
With:
Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Barack Obama.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt7215444/

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.

Film Review: 'The Final Year'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 8, 2017. Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures presentation, in association with Prettybird Pictures. (International sales: Submarine, New York City.) Producers: Julie Goldman, John Battsek, Greg Barker. Executive producers: George Chinell, Nicole Stott, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn.

Crew: Director: Greg Barker. Camera (color, widescreen): Erich Rowland, Martina Radwan. Editors: Joshua Altman, Langdon Page. Music: Philip Sheppard.

With: Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Barack Obama.

More Film

  • oscar nominee predictions 2019

    'Roma,' 'A Star Is Born' Poised to Lead Oscar Nominations

    Things got ugly this awards season, enough to give you pause about what might still lie ahead once Oscar nominations are announced next week. “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” etc. But as the phase one dust finally begins to settle, what does the landscape look like? On the heels of [...]

  • Oscars Predictions 2018 Illustration

    Academy Awards: Final Oscar Predictions in All Categories

    Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Below are In Contention’s final predictions in all 24 categories. Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” lead the way with 10 expected nominations apiece, while we forecast eight for Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite” and seven each for Damien [...]

  • Zach Barack Spider-Man

    Transgender Actor Zach Barack Joins Sony's 'Spider-Man: Far From Home'

    Newcomer and transgender actor Zach Barack appears in a ground-breaking supporting role in Sony/Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” sources confirm to Variety. Barack can be seen in the new trailer, which was released on Tuesday. More Reviews TV Review: 'Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes' Album Review: Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ [...]

  • A Quiet Place Roma Jack Ryan

    'A Quiet Place,' 'Roma,' 'Jack Ryan' Among Golden Reel Nominees for Sound Editing

    The Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) announced nominations for its 66th annual Golden Reel Awards Friday. On the film side, “First Man,” Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” “A Quiet Place” and “Roma” led the way with three nominations each. Musical dramas “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” received two, as did “The Favourite.” More Reviews [...]

  • Nick Redman

    Nick Redman, Documentary Filmmaker and Soundtrack Producer, Dies at 63

    Nick Redman, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, award-winning soundtrack producer and co-founder of the Twilight Time video label, died Thursday afternoon, Jan. 17, at a Santa Monica Hospital, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 63. He was nominated for an Academy Award as producer of the 1996 documentary “The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage,” [...]

  • Nicky Jam Bad Boys

    Reggaeton Star Nicky Jam Joins 'Bad Boys' Sequel (EXCLUSIVE)

    Reggaeton sensation Nicky Jam is set to join the cast of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s upcoming “Bad Boys” sequel, “Bad Boys for Life.” Jam, who will play one of the villains in the Sony pic, joins series newcomers Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Jacob Scipio, DJ Khaled, and Paola Nuñez. Joe Pantoliano will return [...]

  • UniFrance Reveals Expanded VOD Slate

    UniFrance Announces New Incentives To Expand VOD Presence

    PARIS — With the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema now well underway and its month-long MyFrenchFilmFestival about to kick-off, UniFrance has announced an ambitious slate of measures designed to more fully support French productions on VOD platforms in 2019. “Digital distribution is part of everything we do now,” said Quentin Deleau-Latournerie, the organization’s aptly titled [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content