The Final Year exists in a state of denial about what would ultimately come to be true. It's the bitter pill of hindsight that elevates director Greg Barker's documentary, which follows a trio of government officials in the final months of President Barack Obama's time in the Oval Office, beyond merely being an elegy about what could have been. The film exists in a representative present in which billionaire mogul Donald Trump's election (until it happens) was considered an improbability, if not a full-on impossibility. The stage, it seems, was set for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to fill Obama's chair.
The documentary, then, is in a state of looking forward. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Obama during his own, unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 2004, saw lightning strike in the form of a promising political voice when the young Illinoisan Senator gave a rousing speech in Kerry's honor and about the ill-preparedness of the war that was raging in Iraq. Now, there are the looming crises of dangerous climate change, a conflict in Afghanistan that seems to be never-ending and static, another conflict in Syria with the rise of ISIL, and talks of a ceasefire that must include Russian leadership. It's enough that he spends some consecutive days in 15-hour meetings. That means he is tired, but he is also a resilient and passionate diplomat.
For Samantha Power, the Ambassador to the United Nations on the behalf of the United States, it was a job she took on a lark after a teaching position with Harvard University. There's a little bit of pride there, too, as she saw in Obama what Kerry recognized as a natural-born leadership complex, a winning smile, and a charming personality. She carries herself with confidence, even as the complications of dealing with Boko Haram and the varying governments within the countries of the African continent pile up. An immigrant herself (from Ireland at the age of nine), she understands the difficulty and joy of successfully coming to this country, becoming visibly emotional when asked to speak in front of a crowd of immigrants from less privileged nations.
Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Adviser, refuses to even ask the question of what might happen in a Trump Presidency. He is asked what it might mean for foreign policy initiatives, but he won't even entertain the thought. He, too, has enough on his plate to worry about without entertaining that thought but in the back of his mind. He plans speeches for Obama, and the ones on the horizon for him are a series of the final speeches of Obama's Presidency: a consideration of the nuclear bombing in Hiroshima that was ordered by his seat decades earlier, an address at the U.N. that talks about the unity of the country just as terrorist attacks happen in New York and New Jersey, and a visit to Greece that acknowledges its historical influence as the birthplace of the concept of democracy.
Still, the fact of the incoming Presidency looms over the proceedings like a specter. One gets the feeling that Barker specifically curates the few moments where Trump's turbulent campaign are acknowledged as a reminder of the mood in the moment. When the man, set to reverse all the helpful policies and procedures in place to enact, is elected, that mood shifts from hope to panic. One can see the documentary that might have been in the pieces of The Final Year, which is hardly a comprehensive breakdown of 12 crucial months, but the one that we have is a reasonably engaging account of politics in practice.
A documentary directed by Greg Barker.
No MPAA rating.
Released in select cities on January 19, 2018.