By Liam Lacey
Greg Barker's documentary The Final Year, about the final year of the Obama administration and the diplomatic missions of his foreign affairs team, is painful to watch.
That's not because of any people on screen - as charismatic, intelligent, eloquent and responsible a group as you could imagine - but because we know the ending.
How we got from The Final Year to Michael Wolff's The Fire and the Fury: Inside the Trump White House isn't answered, which makes this a decidedly bitter-sweet exercise.
Barker's film focuses on three members of that Obama team: United Nations ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security advisor and speech-writer Ben Rhodes, and, to a lesser degree, Secretary of State John Kerry.
It's a whirlwind of clips, shot over 90 days in 21 countries. We see them as they climb in and out of cars and hop off and on airplanes, stopping intermittently to speak with the filmmakers. Barack Obama and his National Security Advisor Susan Rice play relatively small roles, appearing at public events and occasionally providing passing commentary.
The pace is impelled, in part, by the diplomats’ own sense of urgency, the desire to wrap things up and leave a lasting model for America's place in the post-Cold War world. By the time the film starts, the breakthroughs with the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal have already been achieved. The normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations comes early in 2016.
While the film is not really a backstage documentary like the Clinton campaign documentary The War Room, it captures some poignant moments, both staged and unscripted. We see the first visit by an American president to Laos since the secret intensive bombing of that country during the Vietnam War, as well as his visit to the memorial of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
John Kerry, a Vietnam vet and later anti-war protester, gets the chance to lead the normalization of American relations with Vietnam. We also see Kerry on an icebreaker among ice floes off the shores of Greenland, confirming the importance of the Paris Climate Accord.
Without much doubt, though, the real star here is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Samantha Power, who joined the Obama team after writing a book about genocide. She's a charismatic presence throughout -- articulate, spontaneous and impassioned, We also see more of her personal life than the other subjects. For example, she tears up at a citizenship ceremony for her children's nanny, recalling her own arrival to the United States from her native Ireland at age nine.
She also experiences failures. The Syrian deal proves impossible and the Obama administration is helpless to solve the refugee crisis. We hear that a driver in Samantha Power's armed motorcade accidentally killed a seven-year-old boy in Cameroon, a boy the same age as her own son. We also see her when she tries to express how little can be done to help the mothers of Nigerian girls captured by the Nigerian Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram.
In contrast, Ben Rhodes, a former aspiring novelist who joined Obama as a speech-writer, is the team egghead, seen working in the cockroach infested basement of the West Wing to hone the president's message. He has a streak of intellectual arrogance. During the film, he's embarrassed by a lengthy brutal New York Times Magazine profile, in which he says the decline of newspapers means "the average reporter we talk to is 27 years old," and that "they literally know nothing." This leads to an awkward press conference where he apologizes for his remarks.
Though conflict is never visible, we hear, in parallel interviews, how Power and Rhodes disagreed about Obama's final speech to the United Nations. Power wanted to focus on the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and how "the trend lines in democracy are going the wrong way." Rhodes favoured the positive message that Obama adopted: that the world, on the whole, is less violent and more prosperous than ever before.
While no one wants to blame people for being smart, optimistic and cocky, The Final Year ends up feeling like a parable about hubris. On election night, as the pro-Trump states results keep coming in, the usually articulate Rhodes is reduced to incoherent stammering. Samantha Power was so sure of the first woman American president that she held an election night party for all the woman United Nations ambassadors, with guests Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright. It wasn't a good party.
Chastened, if unbowed, she says at the end of the film: "The idea that we could go gently into the night — that thought has been vanquished. We’re in this for the long haul.”
The Final Year. Directed by Greg Barker. With Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, John Kerry, Barak Obama and Susan Rice. The Final Year shows at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.