Greg Barker had assembled nearly all his footage for "The Final Year," a behind-the-scenes look at President Barack Obama's globe-trotting foreign policy team, when something unexpected happened — so unexpected that it left its main characters literally speechless.
Donald Trump was elected president.
The development not only shocked those onscreen, but changed the trajectory of the film rather dramatically (not to mention the country and the world, but we're talking about the film here.) Suddenly, a documentary that would have been interesting mainly to diplomacy wonks and foreign news junkies became one that will, to many Trump opponents — the film's likely audience — be both a painful trip down memory lane and a frightening reminder of how tenuous diplomatic deals can be, once the regime changes at home. As a record of initiatives that were more or less stopped in their tracks, it may have become much more of a high-profile film — a reality that one of its main subjects, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, acknowledged at a recent screening. (She added that she'd trade that in an instant for a different election result.)
Power, a former journalist, was one of three main diplomats that Barker followed around the world as they sought to solidify the administration's legacy — on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, relations with Cuba, the situation in Syria, climate change and more — as the hourglass was emptying in 2016. The others are Secretary of State John Kerry and longtime Obama aide Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Obama himself speaks occasionally to the cameras, as does National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Is "The Final Year" a fly-on-the-wall documentary along the lines of "The War Room" or the terrific, gasp-inducing "Weiner"? Nope. Despite the feeling that we're getting behind the scenes, it doesn't contain a whole lot of revealing moments, and the subjects are portrayed in a flattering light. Despite being near the action, we don't feel particularly close to it.
Still, we get to see the wheels turning, and it's hard not to get wrapped up in some of the backstage moments. Some are amusing, as when a young woman asks Obama, on the sidelines of an event, how he shares family responsibility with his wife. Obama explains that you need to alternate whose career gets priority; Michelle will soon "get to do whatever she wants." When? "Right when all this is over."
We watch Kerry as he returns to Vietnam in May 2016, working on normalizing relations more than four decades after he fought there and later became a fierce critic of the war. (Barker includes footage of a 20-something Kerry testifying to a Senate panel.) As for Rhodes, we watch him sitting alone in Hanoi with his laptop, struggling with an early draft of the momentous speech Obama will deliver in Hiroshima a few days later, the first U.S. president to do so. Others have spoken eloquently about Hiroshima, Rhodes notes, but this will be the leader of the country that dropped the bomb.
It is Rhodes who also most obviously displays the misplaced confidence Democrats had in the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Asked in Laos by a concerned bystander if Clinton will defeat Trump, who has just been nominated by the Republicans, Rhodes shakes his head in the affirmative. "I'm sure," he repeats.
The most interesting domestic tidbits come from Power, a mother of two young children with the ultimate power job (no pun intended); she negotiates with one of her kids about doughnuts, searches for an errant bagel as major diplomacy awaits, and stashes a piece of her kid's broccoli in a house plant as important guests arrive.
There's also a moving scene where Power, a childhood immigrant from Ireland, addresses the swearing-in of some new American citizens, including the nanny of her children, and chokes up as she recalls her own journey to citizenship. And there's a sad sequence where, during a trip to Cameroon, a young boy runs out into the road and is hit and killed by an SUV in her motorcade. She recounts the incident — clearly trembling — on the plane ride back.
Certainly the film's pivotal scene comes back home, though, on election night. We watch a group of female ambassadors gather with Power and with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to watch what they all assume will be the ascension of another female secretary of state. Gloria Steinem is there, too. We watch their faces as the results come in, and gradually, confidence turns to concern, and then shock.
Then we shift venues to somewhere outside, in the November chill, where Rhodes is seeking to process the result.
"I can't... I don't.... it's..." The master speechwriter literally has no words.
After one last diplomatic journey to Greece, there's not much left to do for Rhodes, Kerry and Power but to pack up their offices, take down the children's artwork from the walls, and say goodbye. A final scene shows Rhodes walking aimlessly with his carton of belongings into a dark night and an uncertain future.
"The Final Year," a Magnolia release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 89 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.