One of the more interesting moments in Greg Barker’s new documentary The Final Year takes place at the United Nations in New York. President Obama is addressing the U.N. General Assembly for the last time, a coda to his eight years in office steering the United States through the currents of a fracturing global order. But the real action took place behind the scenes as Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. recount their “huge fight.”
Power and Rhodes clashed on the substance of the speech. Rhodes and Obama believed the world was in a better place for the most part and they wanted the speech to reflect that. After all, the administration had negotiated a deal with Iran in a bid to restrain its nuclear ambitions and helped broker a landmark accord among 195 nations in Paris to combat climate change. Power, however, remained ever the realist, a product of her experience as a journalist chronicling the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and her unsuccessful efforts at the U.N. to push for more robust action on Syria over Russian objections. She described how she saw Obama’s last U.N. appearance as an opportunity to draw greater attention to the world’s most intractable problems.
“My world is a world where we have 65 million displaced, Yemen and Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Burundi, South Sudan, Darfur, Afghanistan of course, Venezuela imploding…” Power said. “There are concerns about terrorism, there is a fear of the other, and all the trends on democracy, right now at least, are going in the wrong direction.”
In the tug of war between the opposing poles of the Obama administration, Power lost. The tenor of Obama’s speech was optimistic, maintaining a belief in humanity’s better angels and outlining a future built on international cooperation.
Barker’s documentary hones in on the Obama foreign policy team as they decide how to best wield American power and influence to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges in the administration’s last year in office. Shot over a period of 90 days in 21 countries, the film’s main cast of characters include, in addition to Rhodes and Power, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
There’s no shortage of problems for the globe-trotting team of diplomats to deal with. From wrangling to reach a ceasefire in Syria in the gilded conference halls of Vienna to hashing out the terms of a détente with Cuba, the Obama foreign policy team’s frenzied schedule reflects their need to jump from one crisis to the next.
Interestingly, Obama serves as a secondary character in his own administration and gets little screen time. Near the film’s end, though, he offers ruminations on the natural entropy of history—“it zigs and zags”—after Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 presidential race.
While Barker’s fly-on-the-wall approach adds a real-time element to the film, it tilts toward being deferential to its subjects. More often than not, Obama administration officials are more interested in burnishing their legacy rather than offering real insight into the challenges of governing. Seeing Kerry undergo the grunt work of statecraft becomes anticlimactic when all he has to say about it is “I’ve been very blessed to be able to go through a progression of experiences which underscore the value of experience.” (What is that?)
In the film’s attempts to lift the veil, there is some candor when it comes to the personal, though not much is offered in the realm of policymaking. Rhodes comes off as annoyed when he talks about the New York Times Magazine profile of him in which he made remarks about the Washington press corps as being ignorant and easily manipulated. And while there is debate about the mounting humanitarian crisis in Syria (the bombing of a U.N. aid convoy draws plenty of attention) viewers are left to guess what was said behind closed doors.
The 2016 presidential election is, thankfully, relegated to a distant backdrop for most of the film. Trump is barely mentioned in the first half, mostly hovering offscreen in the midst of a raucous campaign season that goes unseen.
In what turned out to be an unscripted ending, viewers are transported to an election night party at Power’s apartment, with prominent women such as the first female Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and activist Gloria Steinem in attendance. As it becomes clearer that Trump will be president, everyone’s optimism is subsumed by shock. The camera then jumps to Rhodes, who is dumbstruck by the turn of events. It’s a striking moment to see Obama’s speechwriter suddenly unable to articulate his thoughts as it dawns on him everything he has accomplished could be undone—by another president who has made it his goal to unravel eight years of Obama’s foreign policy.
A year into the Trump administration’s mission to reduce the United States’ role in the world, a thoughtful documentary on the subject is sorely needed. But Barker’s film isn’t it. It’s merely the polished version of the Obama doctrine, free of blemishes that could provoke debate over his handling of American foreign policy. Viewers will have to wait for a more definitive assessment of Obama’s approach to the world.
Photo: A scene from “The Final Year” (2017), directed by Greg Barker. Source: IMDb.