‘The Final Year’ fills the screen with grace and a ticking clock
Directed by: Greg Baker
Starring: Barack Obama, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, and John Kerry
“The Final Year” – If a doctor said that you had one year left to live, what would you do? Just before that moment, you might believe that time is a forever-companion, and after it, realize that it is an extraordinarily precious commodity. Whether attempting to experience previously-evasive fruits of life, tether distant relationships or write the next great American novel, the clock is ticking. It is counting down, impossible to ignore.
Conversely, a high school student enters a scholastic institution with a clearly-defined, four-year construct, and even though an individual’s path via freshman to senior is unknown, the timetable – barring some rare expediency or lag in studies – is set. Four years. Of course, some kids could be plagued by a condition called senioritis, defined by Google as a supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance. You know, a time when movies, the mall, parties, and/or a three-hour discussion about the future, music or relationships seem more important than a book report due on a random Wednesday.
“The Final Year” does not cover a patient’s last year to live, nor does it chronicle a 17-year-old’s senior year, but this documentary prominently features a ticking clock and the end of a four-year construct, actually an eight-year one.
Director Greg Barker gives an insider’s look into the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the 44th President of the United States does appear on Barker’s camera. Secretary of State John Kerry does as well, but the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes are the film’s two prominent guides on this White House/worldwide tour.
Power - an altruistic, confident voice on President Obama’s staff - operates with a calming presence, as she travels the globe and leverages opportunities for partnership. While juggling – what seems like – 18-hour days, listening to concerns and speaking about humanitarian issues, she also finds herself sometimes negotiating with her preteen son.
Baker’s role is more of a bureaucratic heavy. He manages similar hours and travel schedules, as his intense persona gladly absorbs endless responsibilities. He acts as a tireless defender for President Obama and a stressed taskmaster who first explores and then levels rocky, unknown terrain for him.
President Obama, Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Power, and Advisor Rhodes all have agendas to accomplish, but during this final drive in 2016, Barker effectively captures their awareness of the limited time left. The audience is aware too, while the aforementioned public servants strive for the impossible: to complete their work by January 2017, comprised of a never-ending list of tasks, concerns and events.
“I feel like we should have a clock with the days counting down, because what we have set in motion…all of that is at stake.” – Samantha Power
What rings true in Barker’s picture is that any administration only has four or eight years to actively bestow its imprint. The hope? It will last beyond its time in power.
The elephant in the room is the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fight for the right to continue or reverse President Obama’s imprint, Power and Rhodes occasionally glance at a television or casually mention the heated contest, as it preys as a source of looming anxiety. In 2018, of course, we know the election outcome, but not only does the film provide insight into the inner workings of the White House, but it accurately operates as a microcosm of how democrats felt in 2016. This also includes the reaction on election night, which will be a relived-nightmare for liberals and a joyous I told you so for conservatives.
Thankfully, “The Final Year” truly avoids petty politics, name calling, ugly partisanship, and negative bile from both sides of the aisle. This is not a Trump-bashing movie. Instead, it rises above fray – at least on camera – with a nearly constant stream of grace. No matter how one feels about President Obama’s administration, there is no denying its grace, led by the man at the top from January 2009 to January 2017, and Baker’s film surely captures that last year…along with a ticking clock.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.