High on my list of “moviemaking don’ts” is the use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Nothing against the song, it’s a true anthem by the Nobel laureate with 1963-penned lyrics that remain applicable to any era. But plop it in a movie and heavy-handedness abounds (go directly to the particularly cringe-worthy moment in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July for confirmation). However, I am suspending my decree for the new documentary, The Final Year. By the time this chronicle of 2016 politics reaches its climax, Dylan’s words (not sung by him, in this case) sound more perceptive than ever.
The Final Year follows the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, with a focus on three main players: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. President Obama himself is only glancingly interviewed, breezing through like the groom at a wedding reception who drops pleasantries while moving from table to table. Most of the action occurs like a whirlwind: Kerry jets off to the Middle East, Power visits Africa when she’s not excoriating Russia from the floor of the UN, and Rhodes hunkers down on Air Force One, working up a draft of the president’s next speech.
This inside glimpse at how government works is valuable. Because diplomacy doesn’t always make the front page, it’s interesting to witness the details that go into overseas trips. These range from tiny things like Power presenting a book about U.S. National Parks as a gift in Cameroon to big things like Obama’s carefully worded visit to Laos, where some of the millions of bombs dropped during the Vietnam War are still exploding underfoot today. Director Greg Barker, a veteran of Frontline, avoids painting the Obama team in rosy colors, although the film isn’t too critical, either.
Inadvertently or not, The Final Year raises a question: Isn’t there a better way to do all this? The turmoil of foreign advisors pinballing from one sore subject to the next—today Syria, tomorrow Boko Haram—is frantic. (And this is back when actual experts had these jobs.) An assumption lies behind so much of the foreign policy’s on display—that the U.S. should be responsible for solving international problems.
While enlightening and generally engrossing, The Final Year tells only part of the story, a skimming glance at a vital arena. At times it seems to over-value the adrenaline rush of being part of this high-octane global game instead of what the game is about—and the fact that it isn’t a game.
But the movie we see is probably different from the one originally planned. As Dylan put it, “the present now will later be past.” Early on in the film, the 2016 presidential campaign only appears in the background. Obama talks about creating a viable foreign policy in his last year so that “some other folks continue the process” when his crew is no longer around.
The Final Year is one of those films, like Titanic, where you know a giant historical event is going to happen at the end and overturn all the plans the characters have made. Trump fundamentally changes the movie, because we can’t watch the Obama staffers beam about the inroads they’ve made with Iran or Cuba without knowing what’s going to happen. There’s an iceberg coming, and it’s the biggest, most stable iceberg you’ve ever seen, believe me.