'The Final Year'
Given the timing and subject matter, ‘The Final Year’ had the potential to be a historic documentary with unprecedented political access. While still an interesting movie, it’s a little too obviously vetted by all involved. The film has a performative rather than naturalistic vibe. Unfortunately, just like everyone in the doc kind of predicted, anything that happened on camera here has easily been topped by the subsequent White House madness. It’s amazing how this movie can feel like a quaint time capsule of a bygone era barely a year later.
As the title suggests, ‘The Final Year’ is indeed a documentary about the (wait for it) final year of the Obama administration. The big man is of course featured, but since he was busy doing his job (unlike his successor) he’s available for only a few interviews. Instead, the focus is on a handful of important staff members, which makes for an intriguing peek behind the scenes (especially as they all watch TVs in dead-eyed shock as Trump is elected). Still, it’s not necessarily anything Earth-shattering for those even vaguely familiar with how a Presidential team operates – or at least is supposed to operate. Greg Baker’s film also has problems staying on track and maintaining focus, kind of like me right now. I’ll get back to that later.
The doc clearly started out with a different focus than where it ended up over the course of a 90-day shoot during Obama’s final year. It was supposed to be a celebration of diplomacy and hard-won achievements such as the Paris Accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Now it plays like a sad lament for times when such things were taken seriously by a Presidential administration. What starts as a proud journey slowly descends into a fearful panic about the future, which sadly has gone far worse far more quickly than anyone on screen could have predicted.
The primary folks probed by Baker’s cameras are Samantha Power (an ambassador to the UN whose background in journalism in war-torn countries made her particularly sensitive to issues too often ignored in the past), speechwriter Ben Rhodes (who reveals how little time he had to prepare speeches and the surprising ease with which he could accidentally ruffle the feathers of colleagues), and Secretary of State John Kerry (who takes over the doc for large portions of screen time, delving into his background as well as struggling to settle relations between Russia and Syria before watching it blow up in his face). All of them hold crucial roles, and in their own ways embody rhetoric of the Obama administration, which they repeat often, and occasionally we see that echoed by the big guy himself.
In its raw footage stage, the film likely had a great deal of fly-on-the-wall material in some of the biggest rooms of power on the planet. Unfortunately, as Baker cut it all down and formed it into an 89-minute documentary, that impartial observation disappeared. The movie ends up being a passionate rallying cry for the diplomatic and peaceful goals that Obama attempted to instill in the American people while in office, as well as a fearful look at how all that would disappear in the immediate future. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach or making those points, there’s also nothing particularly new shared. Some behind-the-scenes sequences may be fun for politics nerds, but for the most part the movie features people telling viewers what they already know.
That’s a missed opportunity. This could have been a documentary like ‘The War Room’ or ‘Weiner’ that peeled back the performative façade of politics to reveal the awkward truths during an important moment of history. Unfortunately, in addition to all of the worthy and well-articulated sentiments that Obama and his team discuss, the administration was also excellent at maintaining its professional façade and distance from the public. This doc feels like an extended campaign ad for a bygone administration. It’s still interesting for time capsule purposes, just not the movie it could have been. Maybe that’s just because the nightmarish news cycle these days makes this exploration of the difficulties of maintaining peace feel dull. That’s terrifyingly possible as well.