When my friend invited me to see The Final Year, Greg Barker’s documentary about the end of Obama’s presidency, I was reluctant to see it. I had just come back from the New York Women’s March, and I didn’t want to watch something that would only remind me what a hole Obama has left behind in his absence. I knew that the movie would depress me and make me cry, and I wasn’t in the mood for either of those things. But once the movie ended, I didn’t feel depressed and I didn’t cry (OK, maybe once). The Final Year may make you sad, but it will not leave you feeling burned – quite the opposite, actually.
The Final Year documents Obama and his cabinet as they solidify their foreign policy agenda during the last twelve months of the administration. However, the true stars of the film are not Obama and his most esteemed cabinet luminaries, but Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and UN Ambassador Samantha Power. Rhodes started as an Obama speechwriter and worked his way up to drafting proposals, including the opening of relations with Cuba; Power emigrated with her parents to the United States from Ireland at the age of nine and became one of America’s foremost diplomats. Throughout the film, we see what life is like in their shoes as they struggle to see through complex agreements, like the Paris Accord on climate change and the Iran Nuclear Deal, as well as their holdups on issues like Syria. We see Power in Nigeria, meeting with women victimized by Boko Haram; we watch Rhodes draft Obama’s Hiroshima address while reflecting on ill-timed swipe at the press.
Though the film does a good job depicting these moments, we do miss the nitty-gritty of policy-making, and the film would be a little stronger if it had an extra twenty minutes or so (as it stands, it barely runs ninety minutes) but this is not to say Barker ignored it completely – given that he shot 1,000 hours of footage, it’s likely that he could make ten documentaries just about arguments between staffers over how to best phrase things.
The most revealing argument comes about two thirds of the way through, when Obama prepares to deliver his final address to the UN, in which he states, “a person born today is more likely to be healthy, to live longer, and to have access to opportunity than at any time in human history.” With the election looming on the horizon, and thus, the end of the administration, Power, frustrated by their (and her) inability to solve the crises in Syria, takes exception to this line, given how many people in the world are suffering daily. Rhodes supports the President’s remarks, later elaborating in a Pod Save the World podcast with Power that Obama “was trying to find a way to say…’we’re not living in American carnage and I don’t want to feed this immediate political orientation that always leads in the direction of fear.'” Neither Power nor Rhodes are entirely wrong – their spat is just another example of the Talmudic discussions those in public service must engage in to better the cases they present to the world.
In the same podcast, Rhodes admits that Obama had Trump in mind when he gave the speech. His and Power’s sadness on Election Night are the hardest parts to watch. Power feels it the worst, hosting a party for female diplomats and organizers at the White House that begins optimistically and ends with the realization not only that an avowed misogynist has beaten the first female candidate, but that the agenda they’ve worked so hard to establish has been thrown into jeopardy. Rhodes, sitting on a bench, can barely articulate his dismay. These moments force us all to recall the emotions we felt that night, but thankfully, it is brief.
Like Obama at the UN, the film does not succumb to pessimism in its final frames. Rather, it closes with the President himself, expressing hope that the generation who came of age under his eight years share his values and will carry them forward. As someone who falls into that category, I left The Final Year reminded that good people with good intentions may not always succeed, but they often leave behind the most inspiring legacies.
Note: The Final Year is playing in New York and Los Angeles. If you do not live in one of those cities, here is a link to the film’s website, where you can find information about renting the film via iTunes, Amazon, and other streaming sites.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.