Throughout most of Greg Barker’s “The Final Year” (2017), a documentary tracking President Obama’s foreign policy team during the last twelve months of the administration, the ongoing presidential election is largely relegated to the background. President Donald Trump’s nomination at the Republican National Convention is only briefly glimpsed on a West Wing TV, while a secretary smiles and shakes her head. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes assures a coffee shop worker on a trip to Laos that Hillary Clinton will be the next president.
The Obama team depicted in “The Final Year,” which largely follows Rhodes, Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, seems convinced as they work to secure their administration’s legacy that there will be a friendly face in the White House come January 2017. Though the production is certainly infused with a looming dramatic irony given what we know now, Barker’s direction also makes it clear that the day-to-day world of high-level diplomacy is one that is largely removed from partisan politics. Although their ultimate complacency is shattered, the reality of their jobs precludes them from reacting to each twist, turn and Trump tweet back home.
Up to election night, the Obama team mostly jets around the world with their heads down, securing agreements, treaties and other diplomatic work. The film details, among various other diplomatic endeavors, the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Cuban thaw, Obama’s trip to Laos and Japan (where he became the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima), the failed September 2016 Syrian ceasefire and a humanitarian trip to Boko Haram-ravaged areas of Cameroon and Nigeria.
Obama himself largely takes a backseat, although his presence and charisma loom throughout. Barker includes footage of his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which both Power and Rhodes cite in their initial interviews. When he does appear, the camera, with the benefit of hindsight, lionizes him; his diplomatic speeches read like a highlight reel of measured, dignified statesmanship. Foreign leaders respect him, Vietnamese teens clamor for selfies with him and his own staff is charmed by him.
Barker’s deference is not limited to the president; the more immediate subjects of “The Final Year” also come across rather positively. We see the Irish-born Power, whom Barker characterizes as an idealist and humanitarian, giving an emotional speech at her longtime nanny’s citizenship ceremony. Kerry is a dedicated, even-keeled sage of diplomacy, never tiring of his demanding position. The only one of whom Barker takes a semi-critical view is Rhodes, whose political zeal seems to have been somewhat infected by D.C. arrogance and gamesmanship. Early in the documentary, Rhodes must deal with the blowback after he is quoted labeling the White House press corps as “ignorant fools.”
Still, the team is depicted as a group of hardworking, capable diplomats who at least pay lip service to the precariousness of their work. In one such instance, Power’s motorcade fatally strikes a boy as they pull out of a Boko Haram refugee camp, and she insists on visiting his family. In a similar instance, Rhodes admits that he tries not to think about the possibility of a Trump administration for fear that their work will be lost.
“The Final Year” ultimately comes off as a melancholic and nostalgic piece. If Barker had been planning on a more critical view, all inklings of criticism seem to have been blown out of the picture by Trump’s victory. The film makes no mention of drone warfare, arguably Obama’s most controversial foreign policy action.
The image of the Obama administration depicted in “The Final Year” is not one of arrogance or complacency, but rather one formed by people whose ultimate motivator is a desire to leave the world a better place than they found it, notwithstanding the power they wield. The departing image we are given of Obama is in his final foreign trip to Greece. To the gathered crowd in Athens, as images of him and his staff meeting people across the world flash across the screen, Obama explains that democracy is not “somebody else’s job, it’s not somebody else’s responsibility, but it’s the citizens of our countries and citizens of the world to bend that arc of history towards justice. And that’s what democracy allows us to do. That’s why the most important office in any country is not president or prime minister. The most important title is citizen.”