THE FINAL YEAR: An Immersion In Nostalgia-Tinged Pain
In The Final Year, current events turn what might have been a good if slightly unremarkable documentary into a powerful work of nostalgia and mourning.
Oh man, where do I start with this. I spent so much of The Final Year‘s runtime with my head in my hands, sighing in exasperation, but that’s in no way a reflection of the quality of the film, quite the contrary.
Greg Barker‘s latest chronicles the Obama State Department’s 2016, a year defined for them by an ambitious agenda predicated on global engagement. It was a year defined for the rest of us by an exasperating and unfortunate presidential election. Though primarily concerned with the former, his film is unavoidably in conversation with the latter. In fact, it’s hard to think of another film in recent years so informed by extra-textual elements – it’s entire understanding is based in a zeitgeist the film itself never knew.
Barker and his team were embedded with Obama, Sec. of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes as they travelled around the world pushing forth a foreign policy informed by empathy and local interaction. That this diplomatic approach hasn’t always been the case is at once baffling and understandable, and underlies just how transformative the Obama presidency was. The focus of these trips ranged from climate change to terrorism to atoning for past war atrocities, and each issue is handled with nuanced thought and an appreciation for a cosmic timescale.
Prologue to a Demagogue
The Final Year is painful straight from the get-go; watching a young Barack reminds me of my own youthful optimism fostered by his election. I’m then immediately slapped into the present day and am forced to confront the weary degradation said optimism has undergone. It’s impossible not to watch this movie as an exercise in contrast.
Throughout all of the various activities covered in the film the election is there, looming in the background as rolling television coverage, like an unceasing Sword of Damocles. At one point Powers expresses that the team is very aware of the possibility that things might “go the other way” and that their increased international efforts are an attempt to get some important work done before a possible upending of prevailing executive ideologies.
But unlike the audience watching, they still have hope. The viewer knows what awaits them, and in this way Barker is utilizing classic Hitchcock-ian suspense; such as in his famous example of depicting two people conversing idly at a cafe while an audience is shown a bomb under their table, of which they are entirely unaware. This technique perhaps works to its greatest and most devastating effect when the film observes Powers hosting an election viewing party with feminist luminaries Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem.
That is the situation in which we find ourselves with this film, as our current environment plays the role of coauthor, imbuing even seemingly benign details, like Obama putting in the effort to learn the proper pronunciation of a Greek word, with an outsized sense of tragedy. Speeches that may have felt a little sappy when they were made now pack a devastating punch. To hear a president so thoughtfully expound upon a loaded subject like War, and note that even if you’re on the right side of history the results will be unknown years worth of devastation and lingering effects, sounds so novel now.
We most certainly took for granted a national leader who is received with praise by foreign youth as opposed to protest. We know the current president needs to feel beloved, and that’s all but impossible abroad; not even factoring in the isolationist policies, we’re likely witnessing the most insular administrations of the modern era. Was Obama ever actually the president, or was it just a dream?
The Final Year: Conclusion
The Final Year is a whirlwind film reflecting a whirlwind foreign policy. The editing is kinetic, with a cut rate more commonly associated with action films than documentaries. The score further supports this tone of urgency, laden with that political sound that typifies news show themes.
Cinematographers Martina Radwan and Erich Roland really elevate the film with their framing expertise, taking the care to include in shots of their subjects people adjacent to the central action. This offers the film beautiful nuance through the anonymous faces that populate its frame. I must note one shot in particular for posterity; in the aforementioned election viewing party scene Powers cradles her daughter in such a way as to recall La Pietá, serving as representatives for over half the country that night.
To contrast the seriousness of the subject matter the film often revels in humanizing its subjects, or attempting to anyway, through small, relatable experiences such as clumsily entering a car with a backpack, taking selfies, and playing with children. I was grateful Barker included these seeming trivialities from what must have been an intimidating amount of footage, as it allows the film some precious moments to breathe in the midst of a dizzying policy agenda.
It’s hard to say how The Final Year might’ve played had the election turned out differently, probably as a pretty rudimentary political documentary notable mainly for its access; one of the starkest contrasts the film presents between administrations is that of transparency. In another timeline I might question the deliberate intentions of this access, as the film offers some tense moments but nothing that might be construed as unflattering. But current events turn what might have been a good if slightly unremarkable doc into a powerful work of nostalgia and mourning.
The Final Year tries to end on a hopeful note, where Obama expresses his optimism for a future built by a generation of progressives; it’s entirely a credit to him that it even sort of works.
What are your thoughts on The Final Year?
The Final Year will be released on January 19, 2018 in the U.S.
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