CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: John Kerry, Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, Barack Obama

Director: Greg Barker

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: Unrated – Any Objectionable Material is Typical (Pre-2017) Politics

Release Date: January 19, 2017 (Limited)

It is difficult for documentaries about recent political history to make a truly salient argument about what is going on in society, as that requires the wisdom of hindsight. So traditionally the best they can offer is a more intimate look at the inner machinations of government, or peeks into the stories that do not get much traction in the daily news cycle. Greg Barker’s The Final Year successfully meets those criteria. The title refers to the last 12 months of the Barack Obama administration, with a particular focus on the foreign policy team. The main figures are Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. Obama is a supporting player in this presentation, but he is also the center of orbit. Barker’s approach pulls you into this group’s engagement with the rest of the globe, briskly carrying us along as they strive to make the world a genuinely better place.

Any good character-based film, whether fictional or nonfictional, no matter what its thesis, simply must do an adequate job at explicating its characters, and Barker pulls off this task with quiet aplomb. For Kerry, so much of his decades-long political career has been driven by the fight to set the national foreign policy aright following the lies that he and his fellow Vietnam veterans were sold. Though his outer disposition may appear stolid, his inner fire clearly burns within. Rhodes, the youngest of the group, naturally fills the slot of the one who eagerly jumped in when he sensed that a new politics was finally happening. He is the most prone to gaffes, but he still holds onto his idealism. Power, who emigrated from Ireland at the age of 8, is the strongest listener, naturally drawing in every perspective in the room. With a truly worldly brain, she is a natural ambassador. Like many others, they were eager to work for Obama because of his magnetic personality and hopeful rhetoric. He remains an eternally compelling figure on camera. The film avoids hagiography, but it is clear what side it’s on.

As conflicts around the world – Korea, Iran, Syria, etc. – continue to rise to a boil in 2016, this team grapples with the right way to approach each problem. There are differing levels of tendencies towards pacifism or willingness to use force, but a constant theme is an unerring emphasis on diplomatic engagement. If anything, The Final Year glorifies that ideal much more than it celebrates any one individual. As the final act comes to where the political tide is turning, it necessarily becomes a memorial on what is (at least for now) the old way of doing things. I like to hope the American Democrat/Republican divide is not simply one of harmony versus division. I think there are conservatives out there who value getting along with their countrymen and fellow world citizens, and I hope that they and everyone else can find sentiments worth appreciating in The Final Year.

The Final Year is Recommended If You Like: The War Room, Idealism, A Dignified Politics

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Inspirational Speeches