There’s a pre-existent assumption on the part of many that film is an inherently “blue” industry — and while it may be true that the majority of film production takes place in the liberal enclaves of New York and Los Angeles, the audience has always been purple as far as I’m concerned. Politics and film criticism seldom blend without some degree of conflict inherent to the process, so I typically do my best to keep my own biases out of my reviews. That said, the Trump presidency has been a shadow that hangs over many aspects of American life as of late, and the cinema is no exception. There is certainly a market for liberal self-flagellation these days, and into that breach steps Greg Barker’s preternaturally ponderous piece of politico pity porn, The Final Year.
Barker effectively focuses on three principal personages — Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and speechwriter Ben Rhodes — as they navigate the last months of their time in power. While Barker presents Kerry, Power and Rhodes as intelligent, charismatic and engaging figures, his approach veers too often toward the self-congratulatory. His treatment of Kerry, in particular, teeters on the brink of hero worship, but this veneration of his subjects comes to an abrupt end in the third act, as Obama and his team confront the reality of a Trump presidency and their own inability to see it coming.
It’s not that The Final Year is a bad documentary in and of itself but that it’s a film without much of a point beyond the obvious. Yes, there’s a level of fly-on-the-wall voyeuristic interest involved in following this coterie of Obama’s closest advisers during his final days in office, but one is left with a distinct feeling of inevitability in watching them try to establish a legacy, only to have any assurance of its longevity stripped away by the 2016 election. As we see Obama and his team confront the dawning realization that they’ve underestimated Trump and Putin, the most emotion Barker can muster is a wistful sense of resignation and regret. It’s a bit like watching a political thriller for which someone spoiled the ending a year ago.
Barker’s cameras were given unrestrained access to the inner circle as the Obama White House struggles to cement the Iranian nuclear deal, the Paris climate accords and a variety of other programs and initiatives that would have changed the world had they been left unchallenged. Problem is, we know that all of these efforts were effectively for naught under the current regime. Does that undermine Barker’s film? Not exactly, in that it seems his sole purpose was a postelection remonstration, a paean to liberal guilt and a resounding “told ya so.” It’s akin to rubbing a dog’s nose in its own urine — a futile effort at addressing an undesirable outcome when the opportunity to prevent it has long since passed. Not Rated.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.