Years ago, a friend gifted me several seasons of The West Wing, a goodhearted fantasy that imagined politics as a kind of screwball comedy. I was reminded of that program as I watched Greg Barker’s documentary The Final Year, whose characters are mostly as decent and idealistic as Sorkin’s; however, the comedy has been replaced by the motherfucker of all ironies, a cosmic black joke that looms out of sight but never out of mind. The Trump election is what transforms Barker’s film into something much more dramatically interesting than what otherwise might have been hagiography.
Barker and his crew were granted extensive access from late 2015 through 2016 to follow and record Ben Rhodes, Obama advisor and speechwriter, Samantha Power, Ambassador to the United Nations, and John Kerry, Secretary of State. President Obama is observed less frequently, though his presence is sensed throughout. Viewers unfamiliar with the policy issues aren’t given any background by the filmmakers – in a way, the issues are beside the point (although knowing the bigger picture does provide a deeper appreciation for the talents and efforts of these individuals.)
Power comes across as a genuine hero in this telling, the most sympathetic of the trio. Rhodes is a talented brat, a “Josh Lyman” stand-in for those who know The West Wing. Kerry seems an indefatigable workhorse, and I thought, “How could anybody prefer George W. Bush to this guy?” Then I remembered the incoming Trump administration would be hell bent on dismantling every accomplishment of this group, which is pretty much the definition of pathos. The mystery of W. over Kerry is quaint compared to what we’ve seen since.
Another touchstone for The Final Year is The War Room (1993), Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s superb accounting of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign team. Both films employ a you-are-there immediacy without relying on narration or other devices that might provide context but sacrifice verisimilitude. We’re in the middle of the action, just to watch – the vantage is extraordinary, often revelatory. Crucially, without cable news bobbleheads bloviating analyses, the assortment of takeaways will be as numerous as those who see the films. Neither is especially partisan, instead showing the backstage work of politics and diplomacy. Of course, we knew The War Room would end triumphantly, just as we know the efforts of those in The Final Year will soon be undervalued if not rendered pointless. (Further reflection reminds me that the principals in The War Room, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, made the qualities of the candidate less important than how those qualities could be spun and refashioned for the electorate. They certainly paved the way for a Trump.) (Double feature!)
When I told another friend I was watching The Final Year, she said “It’s amazing how fast they can put movies together nowadays.” I do wonder how the same footage might have been edited if Hilary Clinton had been elected; I doubt it would have worked. Still, the immediacy and the rawness of Barker’s film worked for me. (Another aside: The War Room holds up, 25 years later; I don’t think this movie will age as well.) I expect better movies will be made about the Obama years, but as one chapter in a first draft of history, The Final Year isn’t bad. If for no other reason, it silences the talking heads and lets us think for ourselves.