THE FINAL YEAR
Director: Greg Barker
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 1/19/18 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 18, 2018
Access means nothing if you don't do anything of worth with it. That's the lesson of The Final Year, a scattershot and surface-level documentary that follows a select group of officials in the U.S. Department of State during the final year of Barack Obama's presidency. We learn that these officials had big plans, and then we watch all of it fall apart on a single November night.
It's difficult to tell what we're supposed to take from the movie, except that these people worked hard over the course of that last year, found themselves uncertain of how to handle at least one crisis, and left a lot of things hanging in the hopes that the next administration would carry on their work. It's nothing that we couldn't have learned from spending a year watching the news.
Maybe that's not entirely fair, because the movie serves as a reminder of how the news media failed the public in 2016. We heard about the big news, such as the Paris climate accord and the war in Syria. All of it, though, was inevitably framed by the election or, barring that, put into the context of a simple partisan debate.
It was certain that, if a Republican took control of the White House, that man would attempt to dismantle as much of Obama's domestic and international agenda as possible. Framing any effort or accomplishment by Obama's administration as an election issue, then, was easy. If it wasn't something of pressing interest, then it just became a quick story, with talking heads on opposing ends of the political spectrum yelling at each other for a couple of minutes.
Here, at least, we get a group of intelligent and thoughtful people in position of great power and/or influence actually putting forward political philosophy, trying to balance the century-or-so-old conflict between the United States' position as both an ideal for the world and a sovereign nation with its own issues about which to worry, and visiting places around the globe where the U.S. could do something to prevent or solve a humanitarian crisis. We can tell that these government officials possess deeply held beliefs about the role of their country in the world, and we can tell that they're constantly thinking and re-thinking their strategies of how to put those beliefs into practice in the reality of international tension and domestic political bickering.
That's about it, though. The filmmakers, led by director Greg Barker, follow Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Susan Power, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes through the West Wing and to places abroad. We get one-on-one interviews with the players, mostly before and after meetings.
For whatever reason, the majority of those interviews end up repeating the same talking points over and over again (although Power's overseas trips to meet with victims of terrorism are far more personal). Obama and his team are big on diplomacy. There's a certain idealism to this outlook, and everyone knows they have to take the practical realities of political life and international relations into account when trying to implement those beliefs. It's vital that the United States re-establish its standing in the world while fighting two, seemingly unending wars in the Middle East. It becomes more difficult to convince world leaders of the intentions of the United States, especially as a certain loudmouth, blundering candidate with a steadfast agenda of nationalism starts rising in the polls.
One imagines the limitations of what the participants say here have to do with security concerns, but considering how unfocused and rambling the narrative of this documentary turns out to be, it's also possible that Barker and his team simply aren't certain what questions to ask in order to get deeper into the development and execution of policy. We hear about disagreements, especially about whether or not to do anything in Syria, but we're never privy to them.
There's also the dramatic irony of the 2016 election running through the movie's veins. We know all of this effort will come crashing down by the end of the movie. None of these people seem prepared for that possibility (although it's clear that Barker kept it open, since he asks Rhodes about it a few times), and there's a double dose of irony to that, given that Power and Rhodes agree that the administration's inability to recognize Russia and its leader as bad actors might be a significant part of the legacy of Obama's administration. It's triply ironic, given how that country apparently worked to prop up the man who would begin the work of tearing all of this down.
There's a moment in which Rhodes essentially condemns the political workings of the country and the media for perpetrating a climate in which people simply try to score points. He'd rather we have actual conversations about the roots of the country and world's problems, with an eye toward figuring out how to solve them. With The Final Year, Barker has the opportunity to let these people start that conversation with specifics. Instead, we just get generalities.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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