The first thing that hits you is the quiet. For all the movement, the rush from meeting to meeting, the urgency of the issues they seem to be dealing with, there’s no sign of discord, chaos or quarreling in this White House.
Everybody comes off as smart, articulate, on-task, hard-working and not prone to panic. There’s urgency to their tasks, as they know, as journalist turned United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power notes, “We’re all just passing through these jobs.”
So reaching a deal on Iran, trying every idea they can come up with to stop the fighting in Syria, grasping at straws in Nigeria or opening a door to Cuba, widening the open door to Vietnam, those things “we don’t want to leave hanging” occupied the top decision makers of the Obama Administration during “The Final Year.”
Greg Barker’s documentary filters in outside criticism here and there — news voices and those of political operatives on various broadcast media attacking Syria policy or “The Iran Deal” with various degrees of heat. And the film can be faulted for being an insider’s inside look at Obama Era foreign policy, focusing on President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, U. N. Ambassador Power and Deputy National Security Adviser and speech writer Ben Rhodes.
But the overarching idea is the simple contrast of remembering what political, administrative competence looks like. For all the media and political talking heads hacks heat about “America’s standing in the world” and the ongoing struggle to manage the crisis in Syria, “The Final Year” is jaw-dropping in the nostalgia it creates for a time when “THIS is all we had to worry about.”
Most glaring of all is the movie’s one moment of scandal. Rhodes, a brash true-believer who exudes a sort of “smartest guy in the room” confidence, gave an interview to the New York Times Magazine about how the White House managed a DC press corps that was getting younger, greener and dumber thanks to the collapse of newspapers and other legacy media enterprises, making it easier to shape the Obama narrative and also, it is implied, creating the callow online headline-chasing coverage that led to the rise of Trump.
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” Rhodes told The Times. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
That’s it. That’s what a “White House Scandal” used to look like, an adviser speaking bluntly about a “sea change” in the competence of the press covering the government.
“The Final Year” isn’t a great film. It’s so “verite” — bouncing along with Kerry and Powers, Rhodes and Obama as they jet from Vienna to Nigeria, Vietnam to Cuba, fighting fires and tamping down future fires — that it can feel like hagiography.
The chilling and then deflating moments come when we see Trump convention coverage in the background of an historic Obama trip to Laos, hear Rhodes complaining about the staggering accomplishments on the foreign policy front that “final year” (with the glaring exception of Syria, Russian-meddled into a murderous quagmire), all ignored in favor “of something Trump tweeted.”
The documentary’s subjects start facing questions, “What’s going ON with America?” Troubled foreign folks who cross their path express worry about Brexit and what that could herald with America’s 2016 election. The rise of Trump, Rhodes notes, “is already having a cost,” even before the electorate lashes out and elects him.
Power, the daughter of Irish immigrants, has lovely moments of listening to Nigerian mothers weep and rage at losing their daughters to kidnappers of Boko Haram, or choking up, remembering her own story as she swears in new citizens taking the oath.
But the most revealing moments are simple, inside-voice conversations with all involved, especially the ones where Obama talks about the secret to his rise and his ongoing way of shaping messages — “story.” His “story,” told in the way he chose to tell it, got him elected. “America’s Story,” a great tale summarized by The Declaration of Independence, secured America’s place in the world’s consciousness.
Or at least it did until Jan. 20 of 2017.
MPAA Rating: unrated, mild profanity
Cast: Barack Obama, Samantha Powers, John Kerry, Ben Rhodes
Credits: Directed by Greg Barker A Magnolia/HBO Films release.
Running time: 1:33