Designed to make President Obama's supporters wistful and seemingly to irritate President Trump, "The Final Year" is an intriguing if overtly nostalgic fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the last year of the former's presidency, chronicled through the perspective of his national-security team.
Theatrically releasing this HBO-bound documentary almost a year to the day of Trump's inauguration, obviously, isn't an accident, any more than the throwback credits, which introduce the key players in big bold letters as "starring" in the documentary, as if this were a 1970s drama.
Director Greg Barker's feature-length film is nevertheless an illuminating if somewhat soft-focused look at the brinkmanship and delicacy associated with international relations, one that clearly contrasts the diplomatic efforts of these wonk-ish Obama insiders -- principally former Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and deputy adviser Ben Rhodes -- with the Trump administration's proverbial bull-in-the-china-shop approach.
The project also highlights the personal toll that such positions exact, from the travel to the time away from family, with Power and Rhodes shown in quieter moments with their young children when they're not crisscrossing the globe.
"We're all just passing through these jobs," Power says, although the principals interviewed talk about consciously making decisions that they hope will be "hard to dismantle," keeping a watchful eye -- while the film's being shot -- on the presidential race unfolding as a backdrop to their endeavors.
What the future might hold is an underlying focus of the film, yet merely one aspect of a broader message -- namely, how even for those operating the levels of power, events often spin off beyond their control.
For those who share their liberal views, Barker's backstage access to their election-night reactions is clearly the sobering heart of the film. Rhodes, for example, having dismissed the prospect of a Trump victory, is struck speechless. Power looks crestfallen over what the outcome might mean -- both for the country, and the relationships and policies that they have painstakingly cultivated.
Obama, too, is a presence here, although a limited and peripheral one, dropping in and out of the meetings shown, and talking calmly about the country's resilience, whatever setbacks his party and agenda might experience.
What comes across is how Obama's attempt to bring nuance to U.S. diplomacy sometimes struggled within the current media landscape, with Rhodes, for one, chafing at being pressed to make statements that can subsequently be funneled into pro-con debates on cable news. In that context, he also addresses a New York Times profile in which he derided reporters' knowledge of such matters, statements that forced him into damage-control mode.
"The pendulum will swing back," Rhodes says, almost sounding as if he's trying to reassure himself. But it's hard to escape a lingering sense of pessimism that permeates "The Final Year," especially when comparing Obama's final U.N. speech with the chaotic, dizzying nature of 2017.
For its target audience, "The Final Year" can't help but have a melancholy feel, any more than it can be separated from the prism of politics. But it's worth seeing, if only to gain greater appreciation for the nature of these jobs and their highs and lows -- even for occupants who are, as Power says, just passing through.
"The Final Year" premieres Jan. 19 in selected theaters.
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