Critic's Notebook: CNN's 'The End,' a Bittersweet Blast of Obama Nostalgia

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CNN's documentary examines the final days of the president's administration and touches base with key staff members, from Valerie Jarrett to Josh Earnest.

Considering its apocalyptic title and the fearful mood gripping much of the country, CNN's documentary (which aired Wednesday night) about the final days of the Obama White House could easily have played The Doors song of the same name during its opening credits. Instead, The End has mostly a bittersweet quality. It presents a fly-on-the-wall look at several key staff members as they deal with leaving what, for many of them, will be the most momentous jobs of their lives.

The film appropriately begins with a look back at election night, capturing both the joyous cheering of Trump supporters and the increasingly glazed and horrified expressions of people expecting his defeat. President Obama is seen trying to reassure the country, pointing out, "We're not Democrats first. We're not Republicans first. We're Americans first." But the words have a bit of a hollow ring. After all, he once also decried the notion that there was a hopeless gap between the red states and the blue states, and we all know how that turned out.

The film's principal subjects are the genial chief speechwriter Cody Keenan, who oversees a team of young staffers; Press Secretary Josh Earnest, who has the best name ever for his job; Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who calls the election a "soul-crushing defeat"; and Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama's chief of staff, who maintains a stoic demeanor that even the loss does not shake.

"Private citizens have the luxury of being emotional. Public servants don't," she comments. It's a noble sentiment that feels particularly ironic these days.

We're also given a peek into the inner workings of the Center for Presidential Transition, which has a massive job on its hands. The new administration will be making no less than 4,000 political appointments, some 1,100 of which have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

By all accounts, the George W. Bush administration set the gold standard for managing a seamless transition of power. Obama has been determined to manage it even better, but it's not easy, as evidenced by Earnest's efforts to deal with reporters' questions about Trump's continuing attacks on the president.

As with anything related to the holiday season, the documentary has too much extra fat. It serves up scenes of the White House speechwriters trying to come up with corny jokes for the annual Thanksgiving Day turkey pardon ceremony; the unveiling of the White House holiday decorations for military families and the lighting of the national Christmas tree; and such revelations as the fact that 26,000 holiday cookies are baked every year.

Far more powerful is Jarrett's meeting with the parents of Sandy Hook school victims on the fourth anniversary of the horrific shooting. Archival clips relating to that incident, and far too many others like it, remind us that, for all his accomplishments, Obama was unable to get any significant gun control legislation passed.

The documentary devotes a lot of screen time to speechwriter Keenan and his staff (that's right, Obama doesn't come up with his soaring oratory all by himself). Keenan, who normally works in a basement office, is seen exulting in his Hawaii digs while accompanying Obama on his winter vacation. Whether it was necessary to include footage of him happily ordering Obama's favorite flavor of shaved ice is a question only the film's editors can answer.

Keenan is also seen laboring over the farewell address that Obama would give in Chicago. "I don't want it to be a greatest hits compilation, but maybe like a remix," he tells one of his colleagues.

But it is Obama who provides the final words. In the documentary's closing moments, he tells an interviewer, "One of the best things I can contribute is that I'm out there supporting the next generation." It is becoming increasingly clear that that generation is going to need a lot of support.

As behind-the-scenes political documentaries go, The End, genteel to a fault, doesn't exactly rank with the likes of Crisis or The War Room. It's hard not to imagine that there weren't far more volatile emotions the cameras did not capture. Presumably, the inner workings of the Trump administration will provide much more drama … except, of course, that the press won't be allowed to witness it.

The film will encore Jan. 22 on CNN at 8 p.m. ET and is available on demand and via CNNgo. 

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