The Final Year
2018, NR, 89 min. Directed by Greg Barker. Starring Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 26, 2018
There's a key moment in Greg Barker's behind-the-scenes examination of President Barack Obama's foreign policy team. It's when Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes bemoans that news coverage of international affairs has slipped from discussing the issues into gotcha talking points. The Final Year tries to redress that imbalance.
This fly-on-the-Oval-Office-wall documentary examines the shift during Obama’s second term from a military-first to a diplomacy-heavy approach to international relations. After inheriting two ongoing conflicts, Obama adopted the mantra of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (a quote often falsely attributed to Winston Churchill) that “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.” With the clock ticking, Obama and his team attempt to lock gains in place that cannot be shifted by any future administration.
Barker's narrative falls into two key sections. First, the opening months of 2016, when the team anticipates it will be succeeded by Hillary Clinton's team; then the closing months of the election campaign, as they balance the possibility of a Trump administration, and what that means for future foreign policy (the post-election era becomes more of a coda than a chapter in its own right). That first act comes with a subtext: that, with only a year to go, the Obama administration had to run to get its goals achieved. Yet Barker glosses over pivotal points, like the difference between the almost impossibly amiable John Kerry as secretary of state and his predecessor/presumptive future president Clinton. In doing so, the narrative often lacks the urgency the title implies.
The Final Year's second failing is exactly what Rhodes complains about: that drama is what people crave. Films like Weiner make politics look quirky, and policy takes a distant second place to theatrics. Here Barker concentrates so much on overviews of issues that the arguments about policy, which should be the pivotal concern, just dissolve. There's a tension between UN Ambassador Samantha Power, the humanitarian absolutist, and Rhodes, who concentrates on the big picture and outcomes. Yet that tension is told, not shown, and at a terse, TV-friendly 90 minutes this HBO production has little time to really get into the issues that cause the split. Instead, Power and Rhodes barely interact: she heads to Africa, to work on freeing the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, while Rhodes tries to rewrite the politics of the Western Hemisphere by reviving relations with Cuba.
The impact of the 2016 elections, adding even greater urgency to the mission and well-needed energy to the narrative, goes off like a bombshell (especially in Rhodes' frozen response). Yet overall this lacks the visceral impact of a Why We Fight or The Fog of War. The opening act in particular feels scattershot: Barker attempts to portray the massive scale of everything the team faces and how they are interlinked, but instead jumps from subject to subject, while Philip Sheppard's stirring string score only amplifies the slick superficiality.
The deepest frustration is that Barker had seemingly unrestricted access to one of the most revolutionary and skilled White House offices of the postwar era, yet the end result is like condensing an entire season of The West Wing and cutting out all the best monologues.