Alongside Greg Barker’s documentary The Final Year and President Obama’s recent appearance on the inaugural David Letterman show on Netflix, the administration — out of office for 12 long months now — is seeing quite the nostalgic resurgence. And without going into political rhetoric (after all this is a movie review) The Final Year is probably something that won’t win over any new admirers for President Obama or change his supporters’ embedded feelings of the accomplishments of his eight-year run. Pointedly congratulatory and clearly designed to root for the Democratic process and goodwill of his various political allies, The Final Year isn’t a very good film simply because it takes no risks or asks much of its audience.
Giving cursory service to the President himself, often glimpsed as he makes speeches or engages in backstage handshakes, Barker’s documentary instead focuses more on Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations ambassador Samantha Powers and political strategist Ben Rhodes as the principle drivers of foreign policy within the White House.
Access to these three people is striking, and Barker utilizes a variety of cross-cutting between their worldly travels combined with more intimate moments with family, aides and behind-the-scenes murmuring of their thought process. However, The Final Year covers this mileage without ever really finding interesting threads. We see bits of an immigration graduation ceremony that Powers speaks at and becomes visibly emotional. We see Rhodes in complicated conversations with fellow aides, trying to assuage the correct way to get his ideas across. We’re given access to John Kerry as he attempts to pull all the pieces of his strategy together. It all looks interesting, but it’s delivered in such a dry, matter-of-fact manner that it feels like a college political science discourse.
The film does pick up some steam towards the end when their realization of a continued Democratic presence in the White House is shattered, leaving Rhodes literally stammering, exhausted for words on election night. Dour faces slowly infect the film and the presence of Donald Trump becomes a literal shadow in their not-so-distant future.
But, The Final Year isn’t about that transition of power, quickly swinging back to Kerry, Rhodes and Powers as they attempt to leave their jobs in better places than they found them. It’s admirable, but I can’t help but imagine the type of film The Final Year might have been if it examined the onslaught of Republican momentum against these very blue-blood political figures. Alas, it’s not that film. It’s also not a very memorable foray into behind-the-scenes political life, either.
The Final Year opens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday, January 19 at the Landmark Magnolia theater.