The Final Year is an up-close documentary about the foreign policy-making of the last year of the Obama presidency, as seen through the eyes of Secretary of State John Kerry, UN ambassador Samantha Power and foreign policy speechwriter and adviser Ben Rhodes. Filmmaker Greg Barker got extraordinary access to follow these three officials with cameras over the course of 2016, as the war in Syria raged, Kerry tried to get all parties to declare a ceasefire, and the US election campaign heated up with Donald Trump dominating the airwaves.
The film starts with the premise from President Obama that often the most important actions in a sports event happen “in the fourth quarter.” We watch John Kerry tirelessly flying around Europe and the Middle East in search of a deal on Syria, as Ben Rhodes in the White House agonizes over the words to use in condemning the latest atrocity reports and Samantha Power forcefully attacks the Russians for their support for Assad’s atrocities with her famous “Have you no shame?” speech at the UN Security Council.
The bigger theme of the film is Obama’s determination to favor diplomacy over war-making, even as US forces continue to get embroiled in conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. We understand that some of Obama’s advisers think the US should have stood up to Assad more strongly, particularly after his first use of chemical weapons. And as the year wears on we see these top officials starting to get anxious that their main foreign policy “wins” – the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change accord and the opening to Cuba – could all be jeopardized if candidate Trump were to win the election. And by the end of the film, when the election has been held and Obama makes his final trip overseas, to Greece, we see most of his staff shell-shocked and unable to fully process the turnaround. In the most memorable cinematic scene in the film, Rhodes sits out on the steps of a building in DC late at night after hearing the election result, and struggles to explain how he feels, but ultimately cannot construct a coherent sentence and lapses into despondent silence.
“The logistics (of following three officials with cameras for a year) were more complicated than anyting I’ve ever done,” said Barker at a Q&A after the film. “Samantha was easy. Kerry was harder to penetrate because the State Department is so bureaucratic – and dealing with the President was another magnitude of complexity.” Barker said it was amazing to be in the White House after the election: “They were in shock – they had been together for a decade and had certain values and then it is all called into question.” But at the same time these officials were not happy with what they had done, or failed to do, to end the suffering in Syria. “For them, when they see this film they see a lot of failure. Syria is at the heart of this film, and they will go to their graves with that.”
At the end of the film as he is visiting Athens on his last trip, Obama says how he liked visiting old sites like the pyramids, Petra or the Parthenon – “because it gives you perspective.” And he reflected that despite all the foreign policy initiatives his administration had pushed, perhaps some of his most valuable actions overseas were the town-halls he held with young people, because they are the bearers of hope for a better future. Barker’s film is masterful in showing both the dedication and loyalty of Obama’s foreign policy team, but also in showing how they came to terms with where they fell short – a salutary lesson in humility for today’s world.