After our perception of the political arena has been irreversibly altered since the last election cycle, the most striking element of The Final Year — the latest feature from documentarian Greg Barker (We Are the Giant, Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden) — is its inescapable sense of harmony. From its opening moments in The Oval Office, there is a physical quiet that we no longer associate with a presidential administration. More timely than Barker could have possibly anticipated when he first undertook the project, The Final Year is a vital reminder of optimism in power, a stirring portrait of the movers and shakers who are compelled to fight for the betterment of humanity.
While the documentary surrounds Barack Obama’s last twelve months in office, the former president is resigned to a supporting player within the film. His face is the largest on the poster, but Barker befittingly chooses to focus on those at work behind the scenes, namely the key figures within the foreign policy team. We follow Secretary of State John Kerry, speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power as they strive to cement the ideals of the administration as President Obama’s tenure comes to a close.
In a striking contrast to the current cast of characters charged with the care of our nation, The Final Year demonstrates what synergy looks like. All of the success of any presidential administration is derived from the passionate, creative minds willing to risk everything for their country. Democracy doesn’t rest upon the shoulders of a single leader. Instead, the government is run by those bound by “an inclusive global view rooted in common humanity and international order,” as Ben Rhodes points out. As a fly on the wall, Barker allows some of these driven individuals to speak for themselves, following them as they embark on their mission around the world.
While any documentary of this nature runs the risk of becoming self-congratulatory propaganda, The Final Year aims for a relatively balanced, untainted view of the government at work. The film doesn’t shy away from the administration’s failures, often juxtaposing policy decisions with criticisms of their legitimacy. Still, at its core, this is the tale of those who are motivated by a sense of justice, far more so that any allegiance to their political party. When Power travels to Nigeria to comfort the grieving mothers of children kidnapped by Boko Haram, when Rhodes struggles to find the right words for the president to deliver at Hiroshima, when Kerry calls out Russia for their shady dealings in Syria, they are making decisions with their conscience, rather than a focus on political agenda.
Much of what these political figures planned to do, as the participants themselves acknowledge, was merely to sow the seeds of change, in the hopes that the next leader to assume office would continue their efforts in foreign policy and climate change. Unfortunately, life had other plans. In a heartbreaking scene, a watch party including the likes of Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and Samantha Power meets in the hopes of celebrating the election of the first female President of the United States, only to have their worst fears realized: that all of their hard work could be undone by a regime that didn’t share their ideology. Unable to articulate his response in the moment, Rhodes heads outside, speechless.
Even as she is leaving the White House, Power reassures us that the fight is far from over: “The idea that we could go gently into the night — that thought has been vanquished. We’re in this for the long haul.” The Final Year isn’t going to convince anyone who is firmly planted on the opposite side of the aisle, but undoubtedly it will stir those who uphold the views defended by Power, Rhodes, and Kerry. As Obama reminds us, “The trendlines ultimately will be in the direction of a less violent, more empathetic, more generous world.” Let’s hope enough people who agree with this sentiment will take up arms to defend it.