The Final Year is a documentary about the last year of the Obama presidential administration told from within the White House and focused primarily on a few of its top officials: Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. We don’t see a whole lot of Obama himself. It’s straightforward, simple and informative. It is also something of a horror film.
One can see why the filmmakers were interested in tackling this subject as it existed on paper when they began. The Obama administration was (and seriously don’t @ me on this) an effective, mostly no-nonsense operation staffed with people dedicated to his message and bolstered by their own impressive backgrounds and sense of patriotic duty. To be a fly on the wall as they work on their respective (and high-tense) agendas before their time runs out is a great idea for a documentary.
But the real brilliance of The Final Year is a parallel storyline, one that will be obvious to everyone watching it now but probably wasn’t predictable to filmmaker Greg Barker, is clearly not predicted by the film’s subjects, and as a human being living in 2016 wasn’t predicted by me at the time: the election of Donald Trump.
It begins just in the background, on television screens just behind subjects as they talk. But as the ticking clock structure of The Last Year progresses, Trump’s star elevates. Eventually the possibility of his presidency can no longer be ignored, if only for an eye roll and skeptical laughter (something you see often in slasher films). Inevitably, the doc arrives at election night and highlights the dumbfounded shock felt round the world.
This creeping horror compounds itself in the context of these three figures, people on the frontline of Obama’s insistence on solving the world’s problems with diplomacy, patience and respect, values we might have suspected on election night but now know for a fact became extinct once Trump took office. It’s one thing to see Obama on television or Twitter and lament the loss of such a dignified and inspiring leader. Getting up close and personal with those who strongly believed in and diligently executed his philosophy on the world stage, knowing far more than they can even suspect how far away from that goal we’d fall a year later is heart-crushing stuff.
Of course, that is not the primary focus of The Final Year, and even without it, this is a compelling and well-made documentary about statesmanship at the highest level. But this extra element elevates it to a different tier, from a dry, informative look at diplomacy at work, to an emotional, front-row view of how drastically the world can change in just 24 hours.
The Final Year hits HBO January 19.