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A movie about a presidency

The Final Year
Regissør: Greg Barker

Far from the last word is said about the end of the Obama administration. 


With documentaries, it is sometimes embarrassingly obvious that the movie that ends up in the movie theaters is not the movie the filmmakers thought they made. And The Final Year, Greg Barker's new film about the last year of the Obama administration, is for obvious reasons a clear example of the phenomenon.

Barker focuses on the foreign policy team, which consisted of Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. He gets reasonably good access to them, and follows the trio from Washington to assignments in Laos, Nigeria, Japan, Greenland and elsewhere. I usually give the bluff in movies that have "humanization" as a goal – I already know that people are people – but I have to admit that certain moments really moved me. Power, often ridiculed by the left as an interventionist hawk, simply appears worthy and decent in meetings with the mothers of the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, in scenes with her children and during a ceremony of awarding citizenship to, among others, her own maid, where Power breaks down in tears as she recalls her own emigration from Ireland. Rhodes is certainly a bit of an asshole, but a smart one; his complete silence on the evening of November 8, 2016 tells a lot (and more than a lot…). And Kerry – it's easy to forget, given the many attacks he's been subjected to in public life, but he's basically a hero; When he says again and again that he is optimistic, that he will never give up in a situation where he thinks there may be the slightest chance of a solution, then you believe in him.

There was no plan for the unforeseen. 

Unthinkable. Barker's access to the president is significantly less impressive. His only interview with Obama, as far as I could see, takes place behind the scenes during an event in Greece on his recent trip abroad, and it doesn't get much interest out of it. There are other problems too. One is that Barker's access to Obama obviously dried up after the election; He gets Kerry to say he wants to do everything he can to help in the transition, to inculcate the seriousness of the job with the newcomers, but we never see Trump – or any Republicans at all – enter the White House. Rhodes's reaction said it all: It's not just that no one thought this could happen; nobody even thought about it. It was an absurdity, it was unthinkable. There was no plan for the unforeseen. And everything they achieved is now subject to the whims of a scroll.

Another problem is that details of specific situations largely disappear in the sheer number of foreign policy initiatives the administration followed up that year (which extends, though the film does not mention it explicitly, back to 2015). They include the Paris agreement, the nuclear deal with Iran, the normalization of relations with Cuba, the situation in Syria, the situation in Russia. Each of these cases could be the subject of a movie; in The Final Year they are stitched together as examples of Obama's strategy of smart diplomacy instead of violence or other forms of high-spiritedness.

2015 versus 2016. A third relationship strikes at the heart of the problem I suggested in the beginning. Barker apparently thought he was making a movie about the nuances and the multilateral compromises and complex personalities of the post-Cold War era, after Iraq – the 21st century foreign policy. It was something you could think of in 2015 was a good idea for a movie, and which, at the end of the pipe that was 2016, turned out to be an absolute absurdity. Obviously, anyone who would make a movie today about the end of Obama's reign would have to focus on the disastrous election and the frequent argument that Obama's inability to communicate what he had achieved to the American people was one of the the things that made Democrats lose in elections during his two terms. The closest film comes to this, emerges in a discussion between Obama, Power and Rhodes about the world situation. Obama believes things are better now than ever; Power says he can tell that to the 65 million people displaced from their homes for various reasons – the highest number since World War II. These positions fit well with the images of the United States that were gossiped about in the election campaign by Clinton and Trump respectively. We know which was found most compelling by the people.

The causes may be decades back, and the effects will extend decades into the future.

The film ends with Rhodes listing some little things achieved during the Obama administration – the speech in Hiroshima, the visit to Laos and the admission of Nixon's secret war there, Obama's ability to guide and inspire young leaders around the world – which Rhodes considers as possibly the administration's real victories. But the fact is that we do not know what the administration's victories will be, what will avoid being decimated by the Trump administration and the chaos that is now gripping in large parts of the world. This is the problem with making a movie about a presidency: the causes may be decades back, and the effects will extend decades into the future. The Final Year is, with all its positive features, far from the last word about the end of Obama's reign.

Daniel Glassman
Daniel Glassman
Glassman lives in Toronto and writes about film and music. See also

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