There is a persistent charge that the quietly devastating, on-the-fly documentary The Final Year, covering January 2016 to January 2017 in the administration of Barack Obama, is a piece of propaganda — which is valid only if you believe that portraying U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the president himself as idealists determined to carry the ball forward on climate change, human rights, and arms reduction is fundamentally misleading. If so — if you think that they’re saboteurs pursuing a hidden agenda (say, strengthening Sharia, weakening the U.S. in the Middle East, and furthering the climate-change hoax) — then nothing in Greg Barker’s film will satisfy you (and there is no help for you, in any case). The rest of us will appreciate this swift, insiderish view of the achievements, mistakes, and compromises that make the Obama legacy alternately exhilarating and depressing. Hovering over all is an invisible anvil: the coming election of a president bent on undoing every last element of what the people onscreen are busy accomplishing.
The movie is barely an hour and a half but feels dense, and exhausting, as Barker skips among three protagonists who are up against a ticking clock: the tense, reactive Power, who bounces among her family’s apartment, the U.N., and various refugee camps; the tireless, 72-year-old Kerry, who at one point travels by boat amid spectacular — and melting — Greenland icebergs; and the hyperfocused Rhodes, whose chief focus is the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that prompts the ire of hawks.
But Barker seems principally drawn to Power, an immigrant herself (she came to the U.S. at age 9 from Ireland), who reduces an audience of new citizens (and herself) to tears in a speech of welcome that now seems sadly quaint. This is another reason that The Final Year doesn’t play like Obama propaganda. In later scenes, Power is crushed by her inability to prevail on the president to intervene forcefully in the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. Anyone who has read Power’s exhaustive “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide can understand why she came into the administration (from academia) determined that nothing like Bosnia or Darfur would happen on Obama’s watch. She speaks of the president’s being haunted by the deaths of U.S. soldiers and the grief of their families; and so, for all her sophistication, she’s unprepared for his political calculations and their attendant (regretful but forceful) demurrals.
The Obama whom Barker shows us is a gifted and uplifting symbolist who tells a group of young people in Vietnam, “Sometimes we think people are only motivated by money … by power … But people are also motivated by stories.” His example? The U.S. Declaration of Independence. The students are visibly transported. He travels to Hiroshima and says, in essence, never again. In Laos, he laments the secret Nixon-Kissinger bombing and expresses horror at the number of civilians still killed and maimed by hitherto-dormant 50-year-old bombs. His thoughtful demeanor continues to inspire, but in the context of the film he seems abstracted, cut off. He tells Barker and others that deaths from war are way down compared to the last century and that all trends in democracy are going in the right direction. And he wants to believe that — and to be the U.S. president who ushers the world into an era of unprecedented diplomacy.
Although he variously presided over two wars (and pursued a flawed military strategy in Libya), the Obama we meet in The Final Year plainly wants to earn the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in his first year in office for no reason other than that he wasn’t George W. Bush. But in Power’s view, he misses the trees for the forest.
The tallest of those trees — taller than Donald Trump, who’s seen only briefly and, until the end, on television screens — is Vladimir Putin.
It’s Rhodes who muses for Barker on Putin’s agenda, which has less, he says, to do with Russia’s interests than with Putin’s more wayward ones — and the fact that Putin is behind the effort to undo the work of Rhodes and his colleagues. Power, meanwhile, is repulsed by an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria that was all but certainly orchestrated by Putin and Bashar al-Assad. She cries out from her U.N. perch to the implacable Russian ambassador, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”
There is nothing in The Final Year about outright Trump-Russian collusion. This is an “experiential” documentary, meaning Barker chiefly sticks to the present tense. It’s disappointing, nonetheless, that he doesn’t address Obama’s refusal to make public what was known about Russian interference for fear of putting a finger on the presidential-election scale. He avoids any overt references to Hillary Clinton, apart from Power’s Election Night reception for women game-changers, among them former secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Power is confident that the evening will end with a female president, and her face goes increasingly slack as she realizes how much of the past eight years’ work is about to be dismantled. Rhodes sits alone on a bench and attempts to formulate a response to the election while Barker’s camera waits … and waits. (The words never come.) Later, he alludes to the surprisingly small White House West Wing and how few people there will be between the new POTUS and … something very bad.
It’s hard to know how to read Barker’s last scenes, which feature footage of Obama at the Parthenon along with an up-close interview with the president backstage after an event. Obama wants to allay fears and take the long view: This election is a mere blip in the positive arc of humankind, he says. At the White House, Power packs up her files, insisting, like her boss, that “we’re in this for the long haul.” A surprisingly melancholy gospel cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” plays her out. And at least one viewer wept all the way through the credits.
*This article appears in the January 22, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.