'The Final Year' of the Obama Administration hard to watch 2 years later
Posted January 16, 2018 6:26 p.m. EST
Byline: By Mick LaSalle
Maybe you think you had the worst 2016 election night party in America -- you know, the one that ended early. But no, that distinction belongs to then-U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, as evidenced in the new documentary ``The Final Year,'' about foreign policy during President Obama's last year in office.
Power decided that it would be really fun if she invited every woman representing a country in the United Nations, nearly 40 of them. They came, and so did Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State. To top it off, Power even had Gloria Steinem in attendance. After all, if you're going to celebrate a woman's cracking the highest and hardest of glass ceilings, who better to have on the couch sitting next to you but one of the premiere feminists of the past half century?
Think of it: Watching Hillary Clinton's election with Gloria Steinem. That would be as glorious and appropriate as going out to vote for the first time in 1920 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony! Except, wait, Stanton and Anthony were both dead in 1920 and never saw the fruition of their life's work. And so it has always been in American history: Feminism has never been a career path for those looking for instant gratification, or anything close to it.
But anyway. There they all are, all these prominent women, gathered around the television, smiling in anticipation. And at first, things are going well. Power gives the thumbs up to the cameras. But then Florida starts to look a little funny, and then North Carolina. And then there's an odd smell coming off of Ohio, followed by some very puzzling vibrations in Pennsylvania. Next thing, some dreaded, awful TV person is standing by a blue and red map of Wisconsin and saying unsettling things. And by this time, of course, the room is half empty.
The scene emphasizes the essential challenge of ``The Final Year'' in its quest to find an audience. People who don't like Obama won't want to see it, because they won't want to spend 90 minutes watching Obama and Obama's administration. And as for people who like Obama . . . well they might not want to spend 90 minutes getting seriously depressed.
Directed by Greg Barker, ``The Final Year'' was intended as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in the great tradition of Robert Drew's John F. Kennedy documentaries, tracing the mechanics of the Obama Administration's Middle East policy. We see Power, Secretary of State John Kerry and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, among others, working on initiatives with regard to Syria and Iran, while battling the Russian Federation in the United Nations.
But that's not what we're thinking about as we watch. Rather the experience of this movie is like being transported by film to Southern Italy in early 79 A.D., to see a vigorous discussion as to whether to build the new City Hall in Pompeii or Herculaneum. You don't even wish you could go back and tell them that the volcano next door will soon render the conversation moot. It's all-too depressing, to see these intelligent, concerned public servants while knowing who has since replaced them.
Midway through the documentary, a foreign diplomat asks Rhodes if he thinks it's possible that Donald Trump will get elected president. A smirk forms on Rhodes' face -- the same smirk I felt on my own face many times when I traveled in Europe that year -- as he says, no way. Forget it. Never happen. Don't even think about it.
Later, in the immediate aftermath of the election, the normally loquacious Rhodes is asked for a comment, and he literally goes about 30 or 40 seconds, struggling to put two or three words together. Finally, he gives up.
So ``The Last Year'' is that kind of experience. It is, for what it's worth, a good documentary, though I imagine its true worth and true nature can only be revealed in time. At the starting gate of 2018, we can have no idea how this film will be perceived in 10 years, and maybe we don't want to know. Then again, maybe we do.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic.
The Final Year
3 stars out of 4 stars Documentary. Starring Barack Obama, John Kerry, Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power. Directed by Greg Barker. (Unrated. 89 minutes.)