In one of the more ominous-in-retrospect moments of the new documentary The Final Year, Barack Obama’s foreign policy adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes is shown at a 2016 meeting with the White House communications team, preparing for a press briefing. Someone asks if they should have a response prepared for GOP candidate Donald Trump’s pledges to withdraw from the then recently signed Paris climate agreement. That one will be easy to brush off, Rhodes suggests dismissively: “complete international isolation of the United States, condemning our children to a future of … you know.”
The Final Year, directed by Frontline veteran Greg Barker, follows Obama’s foreign policy team during the last year of his presidency and would undoubtedly have been a very different movie if things had gone differently on Nov. 8, 2016. Donald Trump looms portentously, shown on cable news in the background of scenes and popping up in the conversations Obamians have on trips abroad. (The foreigners seem to see it coming much more clearly than the Americans.) In the current political climate, the film reads as a defense of Obama’s embattled foreign policy legacy as well as the importance of diplomacy itself.
There are three main protagonists: Rhodes, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. (National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Obama himself are also interviewed.)
Like nearly all behind-the-scenes political documentaries, it owes a stylistic debt to D.A. Pennebaker’s 1993 Bill Clinton campaign film The War Room. At a recent screening in Washington, Barker even said his goal had been to create “The War Room in reverse,” showing a presidential administration on its way out, rather than the way in. We see the characters crisscrossing the globe from Laos, to Vietnam, to Geneva, to Greenland, to Greece, in an effort to shore up Obama’s foreign policy achievements and tackle unfinished business in the little time they have left. The film takes place after the most pivotal year for the administration’s diplomacy, 2015, which saw the thaw in relations with Cuba (first announced in December 2014), the drafting of the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear deal. These three achievements are listed over and over like a holy trinity, as evidence that the administration did, in fact, have real achievements at a time it was being pilloried over the worsening situation in Iraq and Syria. They’re also the very three “worst deals ever” that Trump has spent his first year in office trying, with mixed success, to dismantle.
Rhodes, the novelist turned foreign policy wonk who joined the Obama campaign early on, is the most in tune with his boss’s worldview and most defensive about his legacy, often expressing frustration with what he sees as the media’s fixation on trivia while his team is off addressing real issues like nuclear war and climate change. At the time portrayed in the film, Rhodes was in damage control mode following the publication of a New York Times Magazine profile in which he came off as an arrogant wannabe Machiavelli. He’s particularly anxious to push back against criticism of the administration’s failure to intervene more forcefully against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, arguing that America’s ability to improve the situation is limited and that an intervention would be costly, draining, and distract from other priorities.
This puts him at odds with Power, the former journalist and human rights advocate, who was best known, before joining the administration, for her Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Problem From Hell, which excoriated past U.S. administrations for failing to prevent genocide. Power was often described as the conscience of the administration—an immigrant from Ireland, she tears up while presiding over a naturalization ceremony—but she rejects the simple (and implicitly sexist) characterization, particularly prevalent during debates on intervention in Syria, that she’s driven by moral concerns while her colleagues are practical realists. “I live in the real world, man!” she says at one point. A trip, documented in the film, to raise awareness of the civilian victims of Boko Haram ends in particularly heartbreaking fashion when Power’s motorcade hits and kills a young boy on the road in Cameroon. Recent events in Niger, which have shed light on the growing U.S. military campaign in the Sahel region, add to the impression that Power didn’t always consider the full implications of her push for the U.S. to use its might to right the world’s wrongs.
As for Kerry, in the last year of a long and fascinating career in politics, he often seems to be off in his own world (literally standing on a melting glacier at one point) in a desperate and frustrating attempt to reach a peace deal for Syria before he leaves office. The movie’s portrayal brings to mind White House staffers’ joking 2014 comparison of Kerry to Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, “somersaulting through space, untethered from the White House.”
The film’s nadir is obviously election night, which Power—who memorably called Hillary Clinton a “monster” during the 2008 primary—begins in celebratory fashion by hosting a watch party with Madeleine Albright and the current female ambassadors to the U.N. from around the world. Rhodes, author of some of Obama’s most memorable speeches, is literally unable to find words to describe how he’s feeling to the camera.
In some ways, Trump’s victory made the film’s job easier. After a year of Trump, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a president who we see backstage working on his Greek pronunciation before a speech in Athens, or for his energetic team who, as their boss might have put it, are dedicated to rejecting the false choice between realism and idealism, between keeping America safe and making the world a better place.
Perhaps a movie released under the Hillary Clinton administration wouldn’t have let its heroes off so easy. For all the talk of how Obama was dedicated to diplomacy rather than force, there’s little discussion of his expansion of a covert targeted-killing program to multiple countries, the consequences of his 2011 intervention in Libya, or his expansion of the executive branch’s war powers to the point that his successor doesn’t seem to believe there are any limits on what countries he can bomb. We don’t hear much about the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, the administration’s backing of Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen, or its failure to call out Russia’s election meddling earlier or more forcefully.
The most memorable sequence of the film, for me, was a characteristic argument between Rhodes and Power during the writing of Obama’s 2016 address to the United Nations. Power thinks the speech, which describes a world “less violent and more prosperous than ever before,” comes across as too optimistic, ignoring the rise of authoritarianism and growing global instability. Rhodes won the argument about the speech, but the jury is still out on whether Power will be proven right in the end.