Obama's final year in office is the subject of this striking documentary filmMAGNOLIA PICTURES

The very name of this documentary is predictably melodramatic, as if the final year of President Obama’s administration is the final year of the world as we know it. Obama, especially post-presidency, has been subject to great nostalgia, which has distorted and inaccurately elevated his presidency. Director Greg Barker does not succumb to this phenomenon.

The Final Year gains a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on the struggle that Obama faced with foreign policy. It is a pessimistic, uphill battle against the perpetrators of injustice and the enemies of perceived American interest. The election for the 45th President of the United States is largely skirted around aside from a brief shot of US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power looking wistfully at a screen showing a projected Trump win. This draws quiet gasps of disapproval from the audience, muted compared to the hearty laughs at the occasional Obama ‘dad joke’. The liberal Cambridge audience, some of whom had purchased craft beer from the bar, will later applaud when the documentary finishes.

“Obama is evasive and philosophical, repeating his somewhat Whiggish interpretation of history”

The protagonists of this biopic are Ben Rhodes, a top White House aide whose specific role is nebulous but seems to write many speeches, the formidable and principled Samantha Power, and an exhausted Secretary of State John Kerry, weary from an incessant travel schedule. The shot of Kerry boarding his private aircraft is one that peppers the length of the documentary.

While the documentary presents lucid portraits of the senior duo of Kerry and Power, Rhodes is more enigmatic. While in Ho Chi Minh, Rhodes candidly addresses the camera to explain a recent New York Times profile which paints him in an unfortunate and contemptful light. The Final Year excels in showing a youthful and genuinely inspirational Obama, then as a junior senator from Illinois – a nobody on the national stage. And yet his affability lands him an invitation from Kerry to headline the 2004 Democrat National Convention, the speech motivating Rhodes to work for the all-but-unknown senator.

The Final Year reaches unexpected greatness in depicting the tension between Obama, Power, Rhodes and Kerry. Their different backgrounds and roles in the administration come to the fore, and they philosophically clash over human nature, the state of the world and how to make it a better place. All make their wish for peace and prosperity patently clear, and yet The Final Year teases out the fundamental differences the four players have.

Trailer for The Final YearYOUTUBE

Power is unapologetically idealistic and liberal, creating a mandate for her role as a position of global advocacy for the voices which go unheard as well as the topics that do not get on the reels of Fox News. Rhodes is more pragmatic and pessimistic – often seen being candidly sarcastic – although he is an endearing apologist for historical American foreign policy in Nixon’s ‘secret war’ in Laos and the devastating bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Kerry is weary – a seasoned statesmen that understands the complexity of the world and the difficulty of getting anything meaningful done. As ever, Obama is evasive and philosophical, repeating his somewhat Whiggish interpretation of history as being on an upward trend.


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The sensitive disagreements at the top of the foreign policy ladder that The Final Year dissects are ones which have profound implications for how the world interprets Obama’s legacy. This peaks ahead of Obama’s final address to the United Nations general assembly in New York. Rhodes and Obama concoct an optimistic speech, professing how today is the very best time to be alive for anyone in the world. Power disagrees, reeling off the pain and suffering experienced by people all over the world and the profound vulnerability of those living in warzones and those who have been displaced.

Unfortunately, The Final Year neglects the transition from Obama optimism to Trump travesty. This is why Obama’s final year is important: It is thrown into total jeopardy by the election of Trump. That said, the documentary does well to simultaneously verify Obama and his team’s status as Good People, while revealing the underlying differences in how his top foreign policy figures viewed the world