The subjects of The Final Year, a documentary chronicling the last days of the Obama approach to our world and its problems.
The subjects of The Final Year, a documentary chronicling the last days of the Obama approach to our world and its problems. Pool / Getty Images

There are probably more important things you can do in response to the Trump era than spend 89 minutes of your time watching The Final Year, a wistful documentary about former President Barack Obama's foreign policy worldview.

Having given 89 minutes of my own time to this film, I feel it's likely the people in it—Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes—would agree you should do something else. Or, at the very least, something more.

By the end of the movie, as all of them grapple with the unexpected 2016 presidential election results, the unanimous consensus seems to be that the tens of millions of Americans who helped propel Obama to two terms in the White House are now a sort of ark. They are, in this view, the repository of noble ideas and aspirations temporarily washed out of power by a perfect storm of resentment, technological disruption, media failure, and enthusiastic demagoguery.

Answering this frightful reality by watching nostalgic movies does not seem to be anyone's idea of how decent Americans, including ex-Obama officials, should be leaping into action.

And yet, if you have arrived at a moment of exhaustion with organizing and Congress-calling and marching and talking to conservative relatives, and if you feel so spun around by the Trump administration's rapid-fire lies and manipulations that you can't remember what it used to be like, then yes, The Final Year will remind you what has been lost. Even watching the movie on mute would do this.


Here is a parade of admirable people who represent a very particular type that no longer seems in vogue at the White House: dedicated, compassionate, cerebral, studious, morally serious, exceedingly fit.


Here is a parade of admirable people who represent a very particular type that no longer seems in vogue at the White House: dedicated, compassionate, cerebral, studious, morally serious, exceedingly fit.

Here is Samantha Power flying to Africa to listen empathetically to families who have lost loved ones to Boko Haram. Here is John Kerry, with the president's full backing, entering into high-level, face-to-face negotiations with the Iranian government in order to slow its nuclear program.

Here is Ben Rhodes with the president in Laos, staring soberly at a display that suggests the massive number of artificial limbs that country has churned through as a result of America's secret bombing campaign during the Vietnam War.

Here is President Obama, alone at Hiroshima, directly facing the horrific consequences of nuclear war and then comforting survivors, including an elderly Japanese man who appears to weep in Obama's arms.

What Obama says at Hiroshima is about as far from reckless, "fire and fury" bombast as one can get:

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.

Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

The film makes clear, however, that if masses of Americans were ever inclined to deeply ponder such things, they certainly were not being encouraged to do so during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"None of this stuff is being discussed in the United States," Rhodes says of the weighty topics explored during one Obama summit meeting with Chinese leaders. "Instead they're talking about Donald Trump's Twitter feed."

In contrast, the administration officials in this documentary are all deeply concerned with Syria, the Paris Climate Agreement, the global refugee crisis, Cuba, and a world in which, as Power prophetically warns, "all the trend lines in democracy are going in the wrong direction."

If The Final Year reveals anything of particular significance, it may in fact be that Power—full of righteous drive, but easy to caricature as the embodiment of extreme liberal hand-wringing—might have understood the global moment best.

Vladimir Putin, she comes to see clearly, doesn't wake up every morning thinking, "How can I prevent mass atrocities today?" At the UN, she confronts the Russian ambassador over the bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Syria, saying loudly and for the world to hear: "Are you truly incapable of shame?"

In this encounter, as in the US presidential election, the Obama coalition, writ narrowly and broadly, seems to have been unprepared for the answer.

The members of Obama's foreign policy team all say repeatedly and insistently that they are not naïve about the world we live in, and this is clearly true from the way they wrestle with its intractable problems. Yet they do not have the winning (at least in the moment) response when faced with a shameless adversary with no moral center.

Based on the election results, most Americans don't, either.

After Trump's victory, a devastated and confounded Rhodes confesses: "I can't put it into words. I don't know what the words are."

Earlier in the film, however, it is put quite clearly.

"The irony of the Obama years," one member of his foreign policy team says, "is going to be that he was advocating an inclusive global view rooted in common humanity and international order, amidst this kind of roiling ocean of growing nationalism and authoritarianism."