For many, the solemn experience of watching The Final Year will be akin to feeling like a child currently suffering under the abusive, incoherent and dangerous rule of a new stepfather, snuggling under a blanket fort, crying yourself to sleep while watching old home videos of your previous, maybe not perfect, but still level-headed, articulate and, above all, decent step dad. When director Greg Barker and crew began documenting the last year of the Obama administration—told from the perspectives of its three high-ranking foreign policy people, Secretary of State John Kerry, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and (take a deep breath) Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes—they must have had no idea that their respectful and respectfully even-handed tribute would turn into a prequel for a rather nasty horror movie we can’t seem to escape.
The truly terrifying part of The Final Year, at least as it relates to the current administration, is how concisely and effectively Barker captures the day-to-day mania of a White House that actually has its affairs in order. From the very first frame, the appropriately fast-paced editing follows Obama’s team erratically jumping from tackling one massive, imminent, depressing and complex issue after another: Before we can wrap our minds around Kerry’s trip to assess the destructive effects of climate change on Greenland, we switch to Samantha Power doing her best to console grieving mothers who lost their daughters to Boko Haram. Meanwhile, these sequences Barker undercuts with loose, rapid-fire snippets of news reports and opinion pieces praising or demonizing these efforts.
The goal here seems to be to simply let the audience experience the hectic schedules of these vitally important government figures as they struggle to make the right decisions—or, at a bare minimum, to pick the least destructive options—while media and public opinion blends together into a constant fog of incoherent noise. Why is that terrifying? Since the film successfully makes the case that these competent, experienced and tough-as-nails people barely have enough time and energy to keep a basic modicum of peace in place, it then, by extension, proves that with the army of sycophantic nincompoops currently running everything, we are truly and deeply fucked.
Barker wisely reserves the least amount of screen time to John Kerry, since the man, as much of a political machine as he is, is the opposite of charismatic. Still, he has a couple of moments of passion in the film—as much passion as can be extricated from him—especially when it comes to the constant criticism he gets about the U.S. response to the Syrian crisis. Similarly, sitting in his borderline cubicle office, quietly typing speeches that will be read by the most powerful man in the world in a matter of minutes, Ben Rhodes comes across as the typical behind-the-scenes operator, a man of few words because he knows exactly when and where to use them. This leads to the most heartbreaking sequence in The Final Year: After Trump wins the electoral college, Rhodes sits outside the white house, alone and deep in thought. When asked about how he feels in the moment, he cannot even articulate his sadness and disappointment. Barker uses multiple jump cuts to imply that Rhodes sat there in silence for a fairly long time. It’s hard not to sympathize.
The one who truly comes across as a star, as a woman who embraces the ideals of the American philosophy, is Samantha Power. When listening to people who lost their loved ones to war, people who have been displaced from their homes, she seems to truly care, to aspire to helping the helpless and downtrodden while clearly acknowledging the impossibility of doing so. Her profound speech to new U.S. citizens about how she, an immigrant herself, could eventually attain such a high status in her adopted country, is the highlight of the doc. The brief moments Barker gives her with her children, discussing whether or not she’s going to buy them donuts, or explaining in the simplest of terms a devastating conflict that affects many children like hers, deftly accentuates the humanity of public figures we tend to think of as mere cogs in a machine.
In the middle of all these prominent figures, we get glimpses of Barack Obama. Barker must have been aware that he was the true star of his film, despite the fact that his screen time is fairly limited, since the opening credits, after listing the three key players, introduces Obama with the prestige “And” in front of his name, as if he’s the star cameo for which we’ve been clamoring. In turn, Barker lingers on the inspired and awestruck faces of those who interact with him. The brief interviews Obama gives to the crew showcase a leader who understands the heft of his job, as well as his place in history. His final words for the crew, with which Barker cleverly chooses to finish his film, gives us perspective and clarity at a time we may need it the most.
The Final Year is certainly not a democratic cinematic savior, a left-wing propaganda piece that will convert a right-wing audience—nor does it aspire to be. It’s not the love fest portions of the left might expect. In fact, Barker spends plenty of time on legitimate criticisms of the administration while never shying from showing us that the White House is frequently visited by cockroaches. His film only tries to let us understand the constant and harsh pressures that people in such high positions of power go through daily, and that it does well enough.
Director: Greg Barker
Starring: John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama
Release Date: January 19, 2018