For two terms and change, I’ve wondered: Is his refusal to bog himself down in the soiling back and forth of news-cycle politicking the most frustrating trait of Barack Obama’s? Or is his indifference to bullshit one of the most honorable, one to inspire — one that, were we all to follow his example, might indisputably better our world? Obama tended to let the ephemeral ugliness wash past his feet as he strode toward goals greater than any one day’s talk-radio outrage, toward change he believed might endure. Of course, by not looking down as often as might have, he sometimes missed how the ephemeral (death panels! birth certificate! Benghazi! Solyndra!) had hardened into muck; how that muck slowed him down; how millions of the Americans whose lives and futures he sought to improve were sold each day that his every move was nefarious — that he was a foreign adversary, a Manchurian Muslim, a devoted anti-white racist, an Alinskyite wealth-redistributor, the puppet of Bill Ayers or George Soros, even the Antichrist himself. Could Obama have soothed the fever-minded Breitbart set if he had taken time to engage with this nonsense? Probably not. But his long-term bet on the decency and reasonableness of the American public certainly has, in the short term, come to appear disastrous. He and his administration didn’t let the bullshit get to them — but they did little to stop it from swallowing their country and, potentially, their legacy.
Greg Barker’s engaging and resolutely un-dishy travelogue, The Final Year, finds a film crew trailing Obama and several cabinet members and staffers — Samantha Power, U.N. ambassador; Secretary of State John Kerry; speechwriter and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes — over the course of 2016. Team Obama circumnavigates the globe, practicing what he preaches: thoughtful diplomacy, engaged listening, dogged efforts at securing compromises and ceasefires. Everyone looks somber, run ragged, but still somewhat awed. They look adult as they chase peace in Syria, a climate accord in Paris, a nuclear deal in Iran. Rhodes lists the State Department’s 2016 priorities in the earlier scenes, and the moment plays as grim comedy: The current administration’s list is the same, just backward, right down to Rhodes’s own passion project, normalization of relations with Cuba.
The undertaking is ambitious, even singular. Have documentarians ever been allowed into the room at so many high-level government meetings and summits? But it becomes clear quickly that Barker has few unguarded moments to show us. Don’t expect raw statecraft.
The filmmakers jet along with them to Vietnam, where the president speaks of healing and takes questions from eager young people; to Laos, where he notes with frank poetry the devastations of Richard Nixon’s secret war; to Japan, where he is the first U.S. president to speak at Hiroshima. There he calls upon the world and his own country to dare to look unblinkingly at what the bomb did — and to strive to maintain a global order that he insists has matured past world wars between superpowers. Meanwhile, the journalist/activist/academic-turned-U.N.-insider Power steeps herself in ongoing conflicts. With the concerned zeal you might expect from the woman who literally wrote the book on preventing genocide, Power visits villages in Nigeria, where girls have been taken by Boko Haram. Her tears, as she listens to the stories of mothers, seem those of a person, not a performing politician. “What I can tell you as the personal representative of President Barack Obama is that we will never give up,” she vows. “We will never give up.” But the fight, she reminds them, must always be waged in a way to prevent the creation of new terrorists.
Carefulness can’t forestall all tragedy, of course. As Power’s motorcade departs one village, a young boy dashes into the road and is killed; Power later briefly recounts a visit to the child’s parents, afterward. That experience might have been shattering, but Barker’s film finds little time to treat it, and Power reflects on it only for a breath or two. The filmmakers offer us glimpses of the diplomatic life but too little telling detail. Again and again, we see planes land, delegations enter conference rooms, Rhodes working on speeches, people beaming toward the secretary or the president. Off the coast of Greenland, Kerry briefly regards a shrinking glacier, noting that just moments before, on the bridge of the ship, he had handled phone calls about one of the other global crises he is facing. We see him sign the final text of the Iran deal, but here — much like in the actual 2016 that we all lived through, the 2016 that we’re still in some ways living through — we hear no urgent and coherent defense of that deal’s specifics. In this, the film is curiously effective: It re-creates for us the bubble existence of a squad of high-minded professionals so certain of their causes that they don’t bother to sell them to the public they represent.
For much of The Final Year, convinced of Hillary Clinton’s victory, the members of Obama’s crew insist that their successes and failures are part of a continuity — that their work will inform the work of the next administration. The effect is like watching Superman battle tirelessly to save us all — but never notice that very land he believes in has slowly been replaced with Kryptonite.
The best moments are offhand. My favorite: a quick exchange in Vietnam between Obama and a young woman who asks him for advice on how to balance her own aspirations with her husband’s career. “There are times where Michelle has sacrificed for me,” he says, and the woman interrupts him.
“Are there times where you have sacrificed for her?”
“Right after this,” he promises. They both laugh.
Barker hints at a fundamental disagreement between Obama and Power. Obama seemed to believe, in 2016, that the world was fundamentally orderly, because the great nations mostly seemed to cooperate. Power, meanwhile, found the world wracked by chaos, with 65 million displaced people around the globe. The tensest moments caught by Barker’s cameras are a matter of public record: Kerry and Power, at the U.N., sparring with the Russian ambassador over his country’s refusal to denounce a sustained air strike against a U.N. convoy in Syria. Nobody in the administration is craven enough to call its Syrian policy anything like a success, though Obama himself notes, with some minor satisfaction, that he at least avoided a third American desert war. Late in the film, Rhodes, an occasionally frank interview subject, links their failure in Syria to a greater failure that possibly changed history: In negotiating with Russia, the administration assumed that Vladimir Putin would act in his nation’s interest — not just in his own.
Barker shows us the dream curdle on November 8. Power invited to a party Madeleine Albright and every female ambassador to the U.N., all convinced they would witness the first female president. Barker cuts too quickly for us to feel along, in a moment, their disappointment. But he holds the camera on Rhodes’s stunned face for many long seconds, as the speechwriter who in so many ways had been the voice of Obama — of hope itself — stammers in darkness. “I can’t even —” he says, before stopping and thinking. “I ca —” he begins, before stopping again. His mouth opens and closes without words. “I mean, I can’t —” he finally says. He tries again: “I can’t put it into words. I don’t know what the words are yet.”
Barker closes with Obama, still hopeful, touring the world’s most enduring landmarks: the Parthenon, the pyramids, achievements much tougher for the barbarians to undo than the Iran deal. Then we’re reminded, via montage and voiceover, of those young people he spoke to in Vietnam and in any other countries he visited. Rhodes observes that millennials mostly think more like Obama does than Trump. We see young people smile. What does it mean that the final moments of The Final Year, one year into post-Obama America, offer the same slender hope that we get at the end of The Last Jedi?