Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Final Year: A Review (Review #1715)



There is something to be said about looking back. You can see how far you have come and how far you have yet to go. The Final Year covers the last full year of former President Barack Obama's term, specifically his foreign policy team. Less informative and more infomercial, The Final Year almost makes one delight in how the figures failed in their public roles.

The Final Year focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes with occasional visits from National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former President Obama. With the Obama Administration clocking down, there is still so much to do. The team needs to bring peace to the Middle East, end climate change, visit foreign countries and continue to look on worshipfully upon President Obama. 

The Final Year became best known for inspiring a meme. Ben Rhodes, looking genuinely shell-shocked, can only look on in befuddlement and almost despair when the 2016 election results deliver a Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, victory. The Final Year, however, I think offers not so much an insider's view of the workings of the Obama White House so much as a reason why Mrs. Clinton lost.

So much of The Final Year comes across as controlled and manipulated. I am sure that director Greg Barker would insist that everything was spontaneous. From what I saw and remember, however, almost all the conversations and meetings sound like calculated speech versus actual conversations. It sounds almost scripted, as if the participants knew they were "being recorded for posterity". As such, a certain artifice soon comes into play. 

Some moments are cringe-inducing. To be fair, some of them are not the subjects' fault. In a May 2016 conference, Secretary Kerry meets what appears to be a Mozart cosplayer with whom he takes a selfie with. Other times, though, the actions and behavior of the foreign policy team comes across as curious. 

At one point, Rhodes is seen struggling to get into a vehicle with his backpack giving him difficulty in entering. Apparently, this high-ranking official with a major role in foreign affairs finds it difficult to manage his own bag, let alone think of taking it off before getting into his vehicle. He is clearly embarrassing himself in his klutziness. 

Rhodes has another oddball moment when he appears overcome with emotion when in Cuba. One is left puzzled why the faltering efforts at dethawing the last outpost of the Cold War would make him almost weepy. He seems disinterested in the long Castro record of human rights abuses, but being their man in Havana is something to make the viewer marvel at their realpolitik acumen.

Curiously, Rhodes is at the heart of a lot of curious The Final Year moments. He reports how his Muslim hijab-wearing assistant has been crying for days after the election. However, I do not remember hearing from her directly in an interview. A good opportunity was lost but given that The Final Year was about their laundry list of accomplishments, one couldn't stop to hear why she was more fearful of Donald Trump than of Boko Haram.

Seeing Ambassador Powers talk to victims of Boko Haram is one of the few human moments in The Final Year. It is a tough watch to see and hear their harrowing stories is a reminder of the tragedy others endure. Coming shortly after Secretary of State Kerry declared that climate change is a bigger threat than ISIS (also known as ISIL) is a bit strange. 

It is not as strange as suggesting that a New York Times Magazine profile of Rhodes is some sort of scandal because he said that the press literally knew nothing. 

As a side note, inadvertently or not, Ben Rhodes comes across as a bumbling idiot. 

A lot of The Final Year seems more like a promotional video for the Obama Administration than a chronicle of current crises. It does end on a good note, with the President touring the Acropolis and musing that visiting ancient sites gives him perspective about the present-day conditions. 

For anyone interested in the inner workings of the White House, I think they might get a better idea of what goes on by watching The West Wing than in The Final Year


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