(Greg Barker’s The Final Year details the final year of the much missed Obama Administration. The film opens Friday, January 19 in select theaters and will play on HBO later this year.)
How one feels about The Final Year will be very much determined by one’s political leanings and feelings about the state of the union under Donald Trump. To be honest, I doubt that anyone who is a fan our 45th president would even care to watch it. Simultaneously heartwarming and deeply depressing, the documentary, from Greg Barker (Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden), shows us, as its title indicates, the last days of the Obama administration. Though nothing eventually goes as these devoted public servants hoped it would, their example of hard work and high ideals should be an inspiration to us all, even if many of their accomplishments have since been undone.
One of the best aspects of the movie is Barker’s close access to his subjects. Though he and his crew were granted only limited face time with President Obama – expertly sprinkled throughout the film’s brisk 89 minutes – they spent countless hours with both UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, with less, but still ample, time with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. We see these folks in action, and hear them discuss their ideas about national service and global affairs. If only they had spent half as much time focusing on the looming 2016 election, perhaps these thoughts of theirs would still be influencing those who pull the levers of government.
Indeed, knowing what we know now, it is hard not to be overcome by a certain fatalism, or sense of the futility of their idealism. As Powers confronts the Russians at the United Nations, or Kerry talks directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and they push hard for policies that have long been hallmarks of American foreign policy, including human rights, the dramatic irony of today colors the entire proceedings with a retroactive sadness. At one point, Obama even mentions his hopes that he will be able to pass the baton on to a successor who will continue his work. We know how that turned out …
And yet, whenever Obama is on screen, his optimism about America’s fundamental goodness inspires not only his team, but as, as well. I sincerely want to believe the words he spoke in the days following Trump’s victory, which we hear in the film: “Sometimes you lose an election. The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag, and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back. And that’s okay.” Indeed, it might be. And yet it might not. Hard to tell, at this close remove. One thing is for sure: The Final Year offers a solid behind-the-scenes look at people who mostly believe those words to be true.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)