“The Final Year” revisits the last 12 months of the Obama presidency, focusing on the efforts of three foreign-policy leaders to consolidate the Obama legacy and ensure a smooth transition to a Hillary Clinton administration — or, at least, that was the plan.
It’s not a penetrating or enlightening documentary. But it presents a vital picture of the old-fashioned diplomacy and compassion that was coming out of Washington as recently as a year ago and now seems to have existed in another galaxy.
On-the-fly style, filmmaker Greg Barker (“Manhunt”) follows Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and, occasionally, Barack Obama himself as they crisscross the globe and exemplify the administration’s belief in using diplomacy over large-scale military action.
Kerry travels to Vienna for the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement and, later, to attend Syrian peace negotiations. In Greenland, Kerry studies climate change.
Power visits Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria and meets with a group of Nigerian mothers whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Obama speaks at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and becomes the first U.S. president to visit Laos.
Rhodes pens the speeches the president delivers at these sites.
In November, the election of Donald Trump shocks the Obama diplomats, who now must focus not on a smooth Obama-to-Clinton transition but on preventing their achievements, which also involve Cuba, from being ripped apart by the incoming administration.
On one level, the film is a nostalgia doc extolling the Obama way. It contains nothing insightful or surprising, and Syria aside, it doesn’t acknowledge diplomatic failure or problematic foreign-policy actions. Barker reminds us that Obama received a Nobel Peace Prize but fails to bring up Obama’s extensive use of drones.
Yet as the Trump campaign gains steam, and as we (unlike Kerry, Power and Rhodes) know what is coming, the film becomes a worthy document of the Obama vision — described as global, inclusive, and rooted in common humanity — carried out by three individuals who haven’t lost sight of that purpose.
In memorable behind-the-scenes moments, Kerry expresses frustration with critics of the temporary Syria cease-fire and anger at Russia’s disastrous meddling in the affair. Sharing her own immigrant story, the Ireland-born Power gets teary-eyed when describing being a U.S. ambassador to a roomful of new citizens. Rhodes, who has penned some of Obama’s most notable speeches, finds himself, shaken by the election results, speechless.
At closure time, Rhodes and Obama express optimism that the pendulum will swing away from Trump-era hardheartedness. Regardless of whether that happens, this documentary serves as a contagiously appreciative salute to an administration that appeared genuinely dedicated to making the world more humane.
The Final Year
Starring John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama
Directed by Greg Barker
Running time 1 hour, 29 minutes