'The Final Year': Film Review | TIFF 2017

A fascinating look at how the diplomatic sausage is made.

Greg Barker's documentary provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective on Obama's foreign policy team during their last months in office.

It’s hard not to watch Greg Barker’s film about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during the final year of his administration without feeling a twinge of nostalgia. Indeed, for most viewers inclined to check out a film about the subject, it will be hard not to cry. This compelling documentary receiving its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival should prove irresistible to anyone interested in politics, and thanks to a certain businessman elected president, that number has definitely swelled in recent years.

The Final Year provides a fly-on-the-wall perspective of its principal figures: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security advisor/speechwriter Ben Rhodes. Featured to a lesser extent are National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Obama himself, the latter occasionally seen in quick on-the-fly interviews. But hey, it’s not like those two didn’t have other things to do.

The filmmakers certainly racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles during the 90-day shoot that culminated just hours before Donald Trump’s inauguration. They followed their endlessly hard-working subjects around 21 countries including Austria, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Vietnam, Japan and Greenland, capturing such events as Syrian peace negotiations, the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, Obama’s historic speech at Hiroshima and his visit to Laos, the first by an American president.

But it’s the little moments that provide the most fascination, from Power, whose family hails from Ireland, lapsing into tears while delivering a speech to a roomful of excited immigrants, to a shell-shocked Rhodes dealing with the intense media fallout from a New York Times Magazine article in which he was quoted as saying that the White House press corps “know nothing.” Particularly moving is the segment devoted to Power’s trip to Africa in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls.

Playing like a real-life version of The West Wing without the walk-and-talks and glamor — the White House offices are apparently plagued by cockroaches and mice — the doc effectively conveys its subjects’ urgency to complete their tasks, especially since, as Kerry puts it, “the clock is ticking.” During the early days of shooting, the team seems confident that their efforts will not have been in vain since Hillary Clinton will no doubt follow a similar course. But Rhodes, in particular, begins to convey a deep unease as the election approaches. During the interview conducted on Election Day night, the longtime Obama loyalist is virtually unable to speak.

The film makes a strong case that, despite such missteps as Syria, Obama and his team dealt with foreign policy issues with passionate conviction, deep thoughtfulness, and a strong sense of vision. After watching the fateful election results pour in while in the company of such feminist icons as Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem, Power gets emotional.

“The idea that we could go gently into the night — that thought has been vanquished,” she comments. “We’re in this for the long haul.” The Final Year, which proves deeply moving in a way that the filmmakers probably never anticipated, will prompt many viewers to feel the same way.

Production companies: Passion Pictures, Motto Pictures
Director: Greg Barker
Producers: Julie Goldman, John Battsek, Greg Barker
Director of photography: Erich Roland, Martina Radwan
Editors: Joshua Altman, Langdon Page
Composer: Philip Sheppard
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival

89 minutes