Democrats are often accused of failing to sell their platform—and of offering humanist global platitudes that mean little to everyday Americans. It’s an accusation that, while grossly overstated by conservative voters eager to evade the mercenary hypocrisy of the Republican Party, isn’t entirely fictional. Greg Barker’s hagiographic The Final Year doesn’t do anything to rehabilitate the Democrat’s image, which is clearly among the documentary’s aims. During the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, Barker followed United States ambassador Samantha Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes as they tended to the administration’s global agenda. Obama, who appears in the film, sought to establish a pattern of peaceful negotiations that would be continued by the next president. Of course, this story has a bitter ending.
Power, Rhodes, and Kerry are always in motion, informing The Final Year with a sense of action that Barker only vaguely contextualizes. Power, a journalist who covered the Yugoslav wars and wrote A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, is intensely critical of America’s indifference to ongoing mass slaughter throughout the world. She takes an interest in the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram in 2014, traveling to Nigeria to explain to grief-stricken families that she understands the resentment they must harbor for someone such as herself, who comes from a major foreign power they presume to be capable of intervention. Yet this sequence has no conclusion in the film, so it’s natural to assume that this conference is indeed a publicity opportunity, a way for America to claim the moral high ground in theory without assuming the accompanying pain and risk of actual action. Judging solely from The Final Year, it’s difficult to discern the Obama administration’s stance on the Boko Haram atrocity.
This debate of intervention parallels one of Obama’s most controversial foreign policy issues: his reluctance to militarily intervene in Syria’s catastrophic civil war. Republicans, reliably enthralled with war, felt that the president should’ve more aggressively intervened in the region. Though—less conveniently for Barker—many Democrats felt the same way, including Power, who has first-hand experience with civilians who suffer under corrupt and collapsing regimes. Considering the disasters of the country’s interventions in other parts of the Middle East, Obama was understandably leery of America’s history of multiple endless wars. Little of this context makes its way into The Final Year. Barker mentions the bombing of a U.N. humanitarian aid convoy in Syria, suggesting that the event symbolizes America’s uncertainty in handling Syria, only to pointedly drop the issue and leave another thread dangling.
Obsessed by symbolism and decorum, Greg Barker’s documentary misses the sea change in plain sight.
Obama administration, in its last year, initiated an astonishingly ambitious series of negotiations, including the Paris Climate Accord, the nuclear deal with Iran, and a normalizing of relations with Cuba, the latter of which was one of Rhodes’s pet projects. Barker does convey the sheer exhaustion of diplomacy—of firing on all cylinders simultaneously while trying not to spread oneself too thin. (In a vivid aside, Rhodes explains that, contrary to popular myth, many presidential speeches are written on the fly.) The stamina of Kerry the elder statesman is commented on more than once, as he flies from Vietnam to Greenland, whose melting ice provides the most haunting images of the film, adding urgency to the symbolism of the Paris Climate Accord.
Barker, however, doesn’t elaborate on any of these issues at length. And the conflicts necessary to brokering these agreements—all predictably vilified by Republicans—have been elided. Power, Rhodes, and Obama have distinctive points of view—Power is an idealist while Rhodes and Obama are pragmatists—and they allude to the arguments they have with one another, which aren’t in The Final Year either. The Obama administration is known for its tight grip on its own image, and so Barker spends much of the film’s running time capturing P.R. events, such as Obama’s poetic and daring speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and a leadership talk the president has with young people in Vietnam. In one of the film’s few memorable flourishes, Barker alternates between the Hiroshima speech and documentary footage of survivors of the nuclear bombing, their flesh burned and scarred. Though the filmmaker doesn’t have the nerve to contrast Obama’s speech with another inconvenience: the president’s controversial use of military drones, which complicates matters for both Republicans, who stereotype Obama as a naïvely pacifist liberal, and for Democrats, who desperately yearn for this man as a pure symbol of their erudite and humanist ideals.
The Final Year is a trailer for itself that’s largely devoid of conflict, its first two acts proffering an appealing liberal fantasy in which conservatives don’t exist. The specter of Donald Trump hovers over the final act, as the 2016 presidential election kicks into gear. When Trump wins, Barker lingers on Rhodes in speechless shock. This is one of the film’s most powerful moments, as Rhodes stands in for roughly 70 percent of our country—including, reportedly, Trump himself. The effort that Obama, Powers, Rhodes, and Kerry undertook is potentially for naught, as Trump spitefully obliterates everything that Obama embodied, including the latter’s important elegance and agency of being. For liberals, The Final Year might become a kind of metaphorical marriage video that’s watched by divorcees who yearn of that initial hint of paradise. Yet this film smugly bolsters a cliché of the Democratic Party: Obsessed by symbolism and decorum, it misses the sea change in plain sight, and seems terrifyingly unable and unwilling to question its direction, message, and salesmanship.