In late 2015, documentary filmmaker Greg Barker started an ambitious project. During President Obama’s final year in office, he and a small crew followed the President and his diplomatic team around the world as they attempted to “lock down” the policies and relationships that would secure Obama’s foreign policy legacy, specifically his belief in pursuing diplomatic solutions over large-scale military actions. Barker and his team stopped shooting on Jan. 20, 2017, hours before President Trump’s inauguration.
A year later, Barker’s film “The Final Year” will open in Washington Friday (Jan. 19) at Landmark E Street Cinema.
During this period, Barker and his team shot more than 1,000 hours of intimate footage in the U.S. and 21 foreign countries. They had amazing access to President Obama and the leaders of his diplomatic team, including Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor and presidential confidant Ben Rhodes.
This intimate behind-the-scenes access gives the movie its most powerful moments, capturing the human side of people who are usually experienced only in sound bites. It’s great fun to see John Kerry hold up an already frustrated security team when he runs back into the house to retrieve his forgotten cell phone. It’s delightful to see the playful side of the brash Ben Rhodes as he carries his daughter on his shoulders and teaches her to count (she has some trouble getting beyond 10). It’s heart-warming and a little heart-rending to watch President Obama warmly engage with leaders and ordinary people as he travels across the country and around the world.
Perhaps most enjoyably, it’s fascinating to see the dazzling Samantha Powers in action, wielding both her amazing intellect and deep compassion. It’s charming to watch her don virtual reality goggles to experience life in a refugee camp and then encourage fellow U.N. diplomats to do the same, heart-rending to watch her meet with women whose daughters have been kidnapped by Boko Haram and delightful to watch her negotiate with her son over a donut and a half-finished homework assignment.
While these vignettes are fascinating, “The Final Year” lacks framework and context. The fly-on-the-wall perspective offers incredible details, but not the big picture. For example, everyone brags about Obama’s considerable foreign policy accomplishments (Cuba, the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear agreement), but Barker never explains what they were and they get no screen time. Instead, there’s lot of footage about the frustrating lack of success in Syria, but it’s also hard to follow that thread without some explanation.
It also doesn’t examine Obama’s second-term foreign policy in the light of international strategies pursued by previous administrations or even in the light of Hilary Clinton’s work as Secretary of State during his first term.
The film’s focus on the Obama team’s attempt to “lock down” his diplomatic strategy is also somewhat unclear. What is the Obama Doctrine they are trying to lock down?
Were Obama (and Barker) expecting Hilary Clinton to change Obama’s policies if she were elected? And how did things change in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory?
Finally, the dizzying travel schedules gets confusing. It is sometimes hard to keep track of where everyone is and there’s no sense of how these globetrotters coordinate their philosophies and activities. For example, Rhodes and Power have very different approaches to diplomacy (and life in general), but we never see them discuss these directly and we never see how Kerry and Obama meditate their approaches,
Despite these significant weaknesses and lost opportunities, “The Final Year” does offer supporters of the former President the opportunity to see excerpts from some of his finest orations including his magnificent speech at Hiroshima, his farewell address to the U.N. and his stirring speech in Greece during his final state visit. Without directly addressing the topic, the movie also confirms the difficulty in “locking down” President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.