I’m not sure if “The Final Year” is the most dispiriting or inspiring release of the barely begun, already exhausting 2018. As I type these words, a D.C. shutdown looms because the American President would rather break our system of government than miss a chance to kick some people out of the country. The foreign service has ground to a standstill, with career civil servants fleeing in dismay while Donald Trump distinguishes between “shithole countries” and Norway.
By contrast, Greg Barker’s documentary — made for HBO but getting a theatrical release ahead of an eventual broadcast — is a heartbreaking return to a time when grown-ups on both sides of the aisle still ran the show. “The Final Year” embeds its cameras in the Department of State during the last year of President Obama’s second term, and regardless of what you think of that administration’s track record — or unless you’re a regular imbiber of Fox News Kool-Aid — the team’s professionalism, empathy, and pragmatic idealism are enough to make you weep with all that has gone missing.
The three main personalities on display are Secretary of State John Kerry, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser and the man who drafts Obama’s foreign policy speeches. Rhodes’s boss Susan Rice occasionally weighs in, as does the top man himself.
Mostly, Barker’s cameras dash behind the diplomats as they journey to Cameroon, Greece, Greenland, Laos, Japan, and/or up to the UN to cement as much of the Obama agenda as possible before the end of the year brings in a new administration. We catch glimpses of the 2016 election on background TVs, the swell of Trump growing louder. Says Rhodes by September, “I’m operating under the assumption that [Clinton’s] going to win. If I thought [Trump] was going to win, I’d freak out. I’m not there.”
The film’s chief flaw is that it’s in the room but never really in the room — the key figures talk about passionate interoffice policy arguments, but we never actually see them. Still, “The Final Year” takes in setbacks, breakthroughs, gaffes, and a steady drumbeat of talking-head criticism from televised outsiders, heard on the film’s soundtrack but not seen.
Knowing how controversial the Iran deal was, can the State Department guarantee it will survive a new era? Of course not, and a sense of personal futility clings to the margins of the movie like a bad odor. Kerry knows it’s all just politics and what goes around (we hope) comes around. But when Rhodes defends Obama’s hesitancy to intervene militarily in Syria by saying “If we’d gone full bore into Syria, we wouldn’t have a climate agreement, we wouldn’t have Iran, we wouldn’t have Cuba,” a 2018 viewer cringes with everything the deputy national security adviser doesn’t yet know.
Rhodes sees himself as a player — his wordless shock on election night is complete — while Power impressively strikes a chord between the personal and the political, idealism and the ground game. We see her empathize with the mothers of the Boko Haram hostages in Nigeria, weep at a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens (Power emigrated to the US from Ireland at 9), wrangle her own young children, and deliver a blistering broadside to Russia at the UN. We also see the heavy, blundering hand of US power, whether it’s the Power motorcade accidentally killing a Nigerian child who has dashed into the road or US forces bombing Syrian soldiers in the belief they were striking against ISIS.
Hovering behind “The Final Year” is the question of Obama’s legacy, of whether his foreign policy as stated and implemented was daring or naive, a break with the past or woefully ignorant of how the world works. Rhodes talks of hard lessons learned over two terms: that Putin’s chief interest, for instance, isn’t Russia but Putin. But he also cites his boss’s belief that “American exceptionalism is rooted in what we stand for and how we act, not just by imposing our will on others.” The filmmakers, you sense, want to believe him. But the jury’s still out.
And then the jury goes berserk. Faced with the incoming Trump administration and the likely undoing of all they have worked for, the main figures of “The Final Year” express diplomatic mortification and sometimes more. “There’s no backstop here,” says an appalled Rhodes, who, more than anyone, knows how things do or don’t get done in the White House. “[Trump] will have to make hundreds of decisions. That will happen every week here. And there’s not anybody else who will make those decisions for him.”
These people, in other words, foresee a chaos with which we’re now living. The movie, for its part, chooses to look further ahead, to “a different happy ending,” in the words of one onlooker. “The most important office in any country,” Obama reminds us in his final speech as a world leader, “is not president or prime minister. The most important title is citizen.”
“The Final Year” isn’t just a memorial for the way things were. It’s a pressing reminder that they don’t have to be the way they are now.
THE FINAL YEAR
Directed by Greg Barker. Starring Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Powers, Ben Rhodes. At Kendall Square. 90 minutes. Unrated.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.