The first half hour of The Final Year is as pointlessly hectic as one of those action movies that's all incidents and no plot. But gradually documentarian Greg Barker's look at Barack Obama's foreign policy team comes into focus, thanks in large part to the counterpoint played by the Trump campaign.
Shot over a bit more than a year in 2015-16, Barker's film primarily follows Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes. National Security Advisor Susan Rice appears occasionally, although she has a smaller role than Obama himself. The president is glimpsed in the West Wing and other locations that are usually off-camera, but is seen mostly while making official appearances overseas.
The movie is neither an in-depth analysis of Obama's foreign policy nor a candid depiction of the internal tensions of the policy makers. Viewers who didn't follow world news at the time might not even be able to tell that the president favored a less aggressive approach to international crises than Kerry and especially Power.
Somewhere toward the middle is Rhodes, said to have a "mind-meld" with Obama. Rhodes supported stronger U.S. intervention in Syria, but came to agree with his top boss that it would be a mistake, much like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Frustratingly, viewers don't get to see conversations that led Rhodes to change his mind, or even to hear if any Obama staffer drew the distinction between starting a war in Iraq and interceding in one the U.S. didn't cause in Syria.
Rather than detail such complicated discussions, The Final Year is keyed to emotional moments. The Irish-born Power extols the importance of immigration to the U.S. in a speech at her nanny's naturalization ceremony, and in Nigeria sympathizes with families whose daughters were abducted by Boko Haram. Obama hugs an A-bomb survivor during his unprecedented visit to Hiroshima, and is the first American president to visit Laos, where unexploded U.S. bombs remain a constant hazard.
American power's potential to injure innocents is encapsulated by off-screen mishaps on a much smaller scale than the Iraq War: A young boy is hit by a car in Power's motorcade, and a U.N. convoy carrying humanitarian aid in Syria is accidentally shelled by U.S. bombs. The staffers' reactions to these incidents give a sense of the burden of making geopolitical strategy.
Less telling are the movie's occasional flashbacks, which include a section on Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War and a montage of Obama's visits to ancient monuments in Britain, Greece, Egypt, and Jordan. The arc of history is long, but in these sequences it doesn't bend toward anything in particular.
The film's most sobering element is not the Obama administration's obligation to great bygone civilizations, but the historical fluke named Donald Trump. While the narrative doesn't end until inauguration day, it climaxes with election-night TV-watching parties during which the Obama camp's hope ebbs and finally crumbles. Barack Obama may have aspired to Olympian detachment, but The Final Year's most compelling moments reveal chagrin, regret, and shock.