Here’s a brief list of things that should be very easy to capitalize on right now: disaster survival kits, stories about white heterosexual men being garbage, causes related to climate change and civil rights, and nostalgia for the Obama Era. Given that last one, The Final Year should be a slam dunk, a reminder of “a better time” when The West Wing ran more like The West Wing and we didn’t all live in fear of both major catastrophes, or minor Twitter wars that could bring an end to civilization as we know it. Given that, the film’s mediocrity is especially disappointing.
The Final Year isn’t bad, really. It’s just not very satisfying. Some of that is likely because for many viewers, nostalgia for the Obama years will always burn brighter than the documented reality of that time. The primary reason, though, is that it’s unclear what documentarian Greg Barker is actually trying to document. Is he trying to capture the stories of the people in and behind the Administration? The challenges of the nuance of foreign policy? Or something more interesting like the danger in the disconnect or arrogance of Obama’s team? Barker, who directed the film, catches glimpses of each theme, but doesn’t zero in enough on any of them to create a compelling narrative.
As presented in the trailer, the concept is simple enough: The Final Year depicts the U.S. foreign policy path of 2016, the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. But where the marketing suggests that the film follows Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and even the President himself, the documentary actually focuses almost exclusively on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes. (Rhodes official title was “Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting,” but since most titles in DC are meaningless, let’s call a spade a spade.)
The focus on – and as a result, conflation of – the two is odd. Rhodes has nowhere near the credentials of Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University‘s Kennedy School of Government, former member of the National Security Council and Senate-confirmed UN Ambassador. But the way each of the two is filmed makes for an even more unsettling storytelling experience. Much of the focus in the film is on Power as a working mother, balancing time in her job with her family – trying to get the kids off to school or figuring out how to explain the atrocities of the world to them. Rhodes, on the other hand, wears a wedding ring, but aside from a very brief scene in which he’s walking near Dupont Circle with a little girl on his shoulders, you’d never know he leaves the White House to go to his own house.
I don’t object to the view into Power’s work/life balance, and in fact one of the most moving moments in The Final Year features her welcoming a group of new citizens as she reflects on her own experience as an immigrant, and what non-native born people mean to the United States. And frankly, some view of Rhodes that doesn’t make him look like just one more arrogant white dude working in the Obama Administration could have served him as well.
The Final Year would have been better if it had just focused on Power, but it doesn’t. It might have also been better if it had zeroed in on and fully explored the issues around Boko Haram or Syria, but it doesn’t do that, either. The most interesting insights in the film are the ones that demonstrate the way in which no one featured in the documentary thought Trump could win the 2016 election; Power surrounded herself with the other female delegates to the UN in anticipation of Clinton’s victory, and Rhodes is – for the first time in the film and possibly ever – rendered speechless by the election results. But those insights are also skated over too quickly to truly resonate. There’s no depth to The Final Year, and as a result, there’s no place to invest your energy or emotion. People have a lot of energy and emotion to throw around in 2018, so that’s especially notable waste.
If all you’re looking for from The Final Year is a peak behind the curtain to see some discussion on foreign policy challenges and decisions, you may get what you need from this documentary. But if you’re expecting a more cathartic, vindicating film experience, you’re likely to leave disappointed. Even worse, you may leave with a feeling that nothing was as good as you remember it. You might learn something from The Final Year, but you’ll pay for it with the souring of your nostalgia.