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For all its optimism, the HBO doc plays as grim foreshadowing.
As the curtains draw to a close on the end of Barack Obama’s second term in the Oval Office, The Final Year follows his administration for 90 days across 21 countries on what begins as a peacemaking journey but ends on a fraught note after the 2016 election.
The Paris climate agreement, counterterrorism, and the Iran nuclear deal paint the overall picture of what’s at stake: worldwide peace. Obama and his staffers’ plan is to achieve that through global engagement and reversing America’s long history of using war as a tool in international relations.
The “unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access” that filmmaker Greg Barker promises falls much flatter, feeling at times like fleeting montage of quips and fettered conversations with staffers. Picturesque shots like Secretary of State John Kerry boating around in Greenland to observe the effects of climate change further exemplify what the Obama administration has been arguably better at than any other administration: waxing a polished, winsome image of an administration intent on changing the world for better. Although these accomplishments are significant, it still doesn’t truly deliver an impartial, candid look into the Obama administration.
U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and Kerry’s emotional highs and lows are the driving force behind much of the narrative.
In a way, each individual fits in the narrative like a puzzle piece. Power delivers most of the emotional aspect of foreign policy-making with evocative moments: She meets with the families of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, and gives a tear-jerking speech before a group of newly naturalized citizens.
The film takes on an idealistic yet pragmatic candidness the Obama administration has about global relationships with big players like China, Russia, and Iran. While Obama wants to proactively work through solutions with foreign players rather than start a war, he does admit that this type of engagement takes the backseat to protecting American interests.
Obama’s peppered appearances throughout the film are shot in almost TED Talk-esque manner, giving the former president a rosy, uplifting narrative as he meets with diplomats and foreign leaders around the globe.
As noted by Variety’s Scott Tobias, the documentary does not quite bring the same punch or candor of other political documentaries. Nor does it dwell much on the controversy, touching only on Rhodes’ incendiary 2016 profile in the New York Times Magazine that drew the ire of the media before getting back to the globetrotting.
In the background, Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign looms large and menacing but the documentary barely gives its impact a mention. The eventual breakdown of a fraught ceasefire agreement between Russia and the U.S. serves as a premonition to the current dumpster-fire era of politics.
In a way, this documentary delivers many reality checks that the best idea is not necessarily the most followed idea, with Rhodes and Power openly expressing blatant disgust after a humanitarian convoy is attacked in Syria, heavily believed to have been carried out by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
One of the rawest moments of the whole documentary culminates with Power crying out to an indifferent Russian ambassador, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”
In no shape or manner does this documentary feel like the “fly-on-the-wall” production it pegs itself to be. It ends on too hopeful of a note, with Obama writing Trump’s election off as a mere blip in the trajectory of cementing democracy and peace around the world.
“The trend lines, ultimately, will be in the direction of a less violent, more empathetic… more generous world,” Obama says as he traipses around the Parthenon. Given how quickly his work has been undone, it feels like wishful thinking.
Danielle Ransom is a journalist who has worked as a researcher for CNN, NBC's KXAN-TV, CBS' KEYE-TV.