President Trump is coming…
Samantha Power was the first to sense it. The doomsday clock hanging over the Obama administration during The Final Year tics inescapably towards midnight. The United States Ambassador fears that the years they’ve sacrificed to foreign policy could theoretically amount to nothing. They have 365 days to assure that, at the very least, their successes will be hard to undo. They know the baton must be passed, and change is inevitable. We know President Trump is already here.
It’s hard to imagine what Greg Barker’s documentary would be if Hillary Clinton had been elected. Maybe an unprecedented year in the life of policy making would have been enough. Witness John Kerry trotting the globe, hopping from one potential catastrophe to another. From pleading climate change reversal to the Syrian cease fire. The Final Year could have simply been a peak behind the curtain of policy reform. Here are a group of self-proclaimed optimists gallantly torturing themselves with seemingly Sisyphean tasks, fighting the good fight, and revealing the limits of a two-year term. Just another The War Room, but one focused on the stress of the end rather than the beginning.
Donald Trump does not appear in The Final Year until 30 minutes in, and there are six months left to the Obama White House. In the background, the absurd 2016 election flickers on a television set. He’s on mute, but his hair and gesticulations scream an ominous doom. At this point, we’ve been given glimpses of Barack Obama’s glass-half-full philosophy, and his promise to “reach for the world that ought to be.” He’s looking to secure his legacy, and we never even hear Trump’s name grace his lips. But Obama’s successor looms over every single frame of The Final Year. His unavoidable reign skews everything and transforms Barker’s movie into a most somber affair.
Or, if you’re on the elephant’s side, it’s a great opportunity to gloat.
On election night, we are glued onto Power and Deputy Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Power was hosting all 37 female U.S. ambassadors plus Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem. We are a fly on the wall as Florida and North Carolina turn over to red states, and the abject sadness we observe fall over these women’s faces is punishing. Rhodes rests broken on a bench outside. He tries to put into words the obvious shock he’s experiencing, but it proves to be impossible. His every stutter is a nail in the dream every Democrat had on November 8th.
The very notion of this reality was absolutely ridiculous in their mind. To them, Trump was mere fantasy, and we see these top men and women repeatedly dismiss him as cable news noise placed in their periphery to distract from the real challenges of their day-to-day lives. Is it hubris, straight up arrogance, or ego run amuck? They spent a lifetime getting to eight years of diplomacy, and now they’re racing to protect their mission. Meanwhile, the country they’re representing is shattering, and they’re too damn busy to notice. As Power deftly articulates, “We’re all just passing through these jobs.” They theoretically understand that their replacements are rushing up behind them, and their only hope is that the next guy won’t overturn every one of their contributions.
Barker was not looking to make an impartial exploration of the Obama administration. The Final Year idolizes its participants, and depending on your own political leanings, you’re going to cry through this transition or hulk out with contempt. The film acknowledges horrendous moments like the Ben Rhodes New York magazine profile and the deterioration of the Syrian peace talks, but it’s quick to jump on to the next subject. While Barker is not interested in offering a full course meal on how America elected itself into our current predicament, it does offer a tiny, bewildering taste.
The Final Year is a funeral of a film. Barker may not have set out to process our mourning, but in recording the slow revelation of Trump’s possible/inevitable presidency in the hearts and minds of Obama’s cronies, we are forced to grieve for what might have been. Is there a fringe universe somewhere out there that doesn’t implode with every governmental sanctioned tweet? The Final Year allows us to lament, to wallow in our present-day misery. However, once you shed those necessary tears, you’ll also recall those hopeful efforts to think globally. The walls of nationalism need not stand, diplomacy can lead to inclusivity and the trauma of war can be curtailed around a hotel conference room table.
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