Greg Barker and his crew were given unprecedented access to Barack Obama’s foreign policy team for some three months during the last year of his administration, and the result is an interesting but less than spontaneous record of effort and achievement that has been almost completely undone by the unexpected result of the 2016 presidential election. Some people may be pleased at the reversal depicted in this HBO documentary feature, but most of its viewers will probably bemoan the trashing of the Paris Climate Accord, the undermining of the opening to Cuba, and the imperiling of the Iran Nuclear Treaty, which are the most notable matters followed here in footage (and interviews) that center on Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. Obama himself makes an occasional appearance.
The portrait that emerges—thanks to the efforts of Baker, cinematographers Erich Rowland and Martina Radwan and editors Joshua Altman and Langdon Page—is of a harried but disciplined operation with only occasional major missteps, the most notable being a New York Times Magazine piece for which Rhodes unwisely allowed himself to be interviewed. But although he had to apologize to the White House press corps for some of his remarks about them, Rhodes seems to have suffered little blowback among his colleagues from its aftereffects. The overall picture is undoubtedly intended to provoke unflattering comparisons to the chaotic White House that’s succeeded it.
That impression, however, has to be taken with a grain of salt. Though “The Final Year” has the look and feel of a “fly on the wall” piece, it seems more calculated than appearance would indicate. The Obama administration was if anything an efficient operation, and the overall impression the film leaves is the one that the participants wanted to create—of a group of dedicated professionals intent on leaving the world a better, more peaceful place than the one they had inherited in 2009. Certainly the glimpses we get of the president himself convey the image of a cautious, imperturbable man of principle and consistent decency—inviting yet more irresistible comparisons to the current occupant of the Oval Office, whose temperament is decidedly different.
The film ends with the 2016 election results—unexpected and depressing as they were to those who had given their hearts and souls to the Obama agenda. Anyone who feels inclined to applaud their disappointment with the outcome is unlikely to have watched “The Final Year” thus far—or even to have begun watching it at all. Most if not all of its viewers will probably feel a deep sense of loss over what they perceive as the replacement of an administration based on hope and respect with one predicated on fear and prejudice.
While admirers of the Obama presidency will be understandably depressed by how “The Final Year” unsurprisingly turns out, however, they will at least be able to take solace in the fact that the title is not “The Final Days.” That one was reserved for the story of a disgraced president, not one who, despite his admitted shortcomings, left the White House widely admired, and bequeathed the Oval Office to one who, generally speaking, is not.