HBO Films’ The Final Year — playing in theaters now; hitting a boob-tube near you later — charts the diplomatic efforts of four key members in the Obama administration’s foreign policy team over the course of 2017, their final year in office.
Director Greg Barker’s crisply-edited, fly-on-the-wall approach moves along at a brisk clip, chronicling the day-to-day operations of the major players — no one’s minor so close to the White House, a point the documentary succinctly reaffirms — who are often lost in the argumentative shuffle of political issues, including Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, Secretary of State John Kerry, and, of course, Barry the Big O himself. Their names and faces may tend to be forgotten in the endlessly divided discourse regarding their work, but they helped forge the world as we now and will know it; The Final Year offers a peak behind the curtain of their largely unknown lives, capturing the people behind the politics.
Despite providing a refreshingly grounded, humanity-rife perspective on civil servants, The Final Year falls short in a few key ways, preventing it from totally working both today and in years to come. Though the filmmakers may have assumed that any audience willing to watch a 90-minute political documentary is a self-selecting group with copious amounts of pre-existing knowledge regarding the subjects at hand, it still relies a bit too much on assumed familiarity with these topics. Even if all of us in 2018 know the particulars of the various global crises that Obama strove to solve in his final 12 months, audiences in future generations will no doubt yearn for more details to understand both sides of the discussed diplomatic debates.
Speaking of sides, The Final Year also refuses to substantively highlight criticisms of Obama’s overseas efforts. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed that audiences would be tired of hearing the same old complaints that the right-wing media has been lobbing at Obama for eight straight years, but this viewpoint ignores how the documentary will record the present for posterity. Without offering at least some dissenting voices — which could’ve stemmed from the right (“Obama was too trusting of other world powers looking to dethrone America, thus allowing them to roll over this softie in all negotiations”) or left (his unprecedented and pervasive use of drone strokes) — The Final Year doesn’t even attempt to bridge the gap that always forms across the political aisle regarding contentious ideas.
Simply put, too many conservatives would consider the documentary a sort of hagiography in need of some more nuance, which is a shame because, in terms of communicating across this political divide, it’s relatively restrained in drawing obvious connections between the Obama administration and the current occupants of the White House. It’s impossible not to compare such intimate depictions of the former against how their Trump counterparts would probably handle similar situations, but The Final Year wisely allows the audience to implicitly link the two.
Even so, no matter the era in which an audience might be watching, the lack of explicit comparisons between Obama’s approach to global diplomacy and those of his predecessors will always be a fault. The Final Years clearly believes that Obama emphasized peace talks more than other Presidents, but why not delve into their exact differences; for instance, how did past foreign envoys behave? Yet again, The Final Year commits a common mistake perpetrated by most self-conscious art: it seems to prioritize speaking to today instead of always, forsaking universally affecting timelessness for shallow timeliness in pursuit of an immediate, but ultimately all-too-temporary, effect.