The Final Year, like Weiner before it, is a political documentary with a twist that the audience knows is coming the whole time, but the filmmakers and subjects are blissfully unaware. In this film, that twist is Donald Trump winning the 2016 presidential election. The film set out to chronicle the last 12 months of the Obama presidency, focusing on his foreign policy team: Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and (actual full title) Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes. So much of our foreign policy (other than ratifying official treaties and officially declaring war, powers enumerated by the Constitution that Congress has all but abdicated in the last 75 years) is handled directly by the executive branch, so the idea of legacy in the face of a term limit is a compelling story. How can Obama’s team cement his legacy when the next occupant of the Oval Office can undo it all?
And the documentary is not able to answer this question. Firstly, it is impossible to evaluate such a legacy at the time it is being created, of course. And while the film is fully aware of this impracticality—this is truly capturing the attempt at creating a legacy—it is hard to maintain that kind of separation as a viewer. Syria, Cuba, and the Paris Climate Agreement dominate much of the documentary, and those issues didn’t disappear when Trump took office. We are still living in the immediate aftermath (as referenced in The Post), of “the first rough draft of history,” unable to step outside it and get a proper view of it. Trump is certainly the looming threat, growing in the background of Obama’s world on television (and Twitter). At one point, during a trip to Vietnam, someone asks Rhodes about Trump becoming president, and he waves it off, sure it will never happen. This is not the place to debate the 2016 election, but The Final Year is certainly shaped by it, even though it isn’t the main focus.
Splitting its time between these three figures but showing the footage chronologically allows the viewer to observe the intersection of the priorities of Obama’s key advisors and where they intersect. However, it feels a bit too rushed and shallow. Being able to spend just a bit more time with each of them would have made the documentary feel less like a press tour and more like an intimate portrait.
Because Kerry, Power, and Rhodes are frequently on-message and free of drama, there is a sort of monotony that the documentary takes on. While the level of access the filmmakers had to these powerful figures is impressive, not enough time passed for them to get too comfortable. None of them forgot they were on camera. Sure, there are more candid moments that arrive as the sun begins to set on their time, but they are all very concerned with protecting Obama’s legacy (and the next phase of their careers).
The Final Year will be interesting to policy wonks and those who enjoy seeing the behind the scenes of politics. Those coming to see the previous president in action might be disappointed by the little screen time he is given, and will also be reliving the end of his era and the beginning of Trump’s. The lack of dramatic, colorful figures or a strong narrative limits the crossover appeal that other political documentaries like The War Room enjoy. Rather than a clear-eyed look at a presidential administration with its share of flaws, The Final Year is a love letter. One that becomes wistful and desperate as it draws to a close, trading in instant nostalgia for a time that feels as though it is quickly receding beyond the grasp of memory.
The Final Year opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.