Remember the last months of the Obama administration, when diplomacy was still a preferred form of negotiation? If so, you’re likely to lose your mind watching The Final Year, a hindsight-is-20/20 documentary in which we watch a government crumble. Fully expecting a Democratic victory in the 2016 elections, the White House gave director Greg Barker an unprecedented 90 days to follow President Obama’s foreign policy team to 21 countries as they chased peace in Syria, a climate accord in Paris and a nuclear arms deal in Iran. Cementing relationships with Vietnam and opening doors to Cuba were also on the agenda. Participants included Secretary of State John Kerry, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.
Just don’t expect to be privy to every aspect of these discussions. There’s an official stamp to much of what’s presented in this posthumous portrait of a late-act presidency that suggests Obama’s legacy is what’s at stake here – and not the full story. Still, there are choice moments, notably In Nigeria where Power labors to arrange the release of girls taken by Boko Haram; in Greenland, where Kerry dolefully lays eyes on a shrinking glacier; and in Japan, where Obama becomes the first American President to speak at Hiroshima. Notably, the cameras are also rolling in D.C. on election night, where Rhodes – a speechwriter known as the voice of Obama – looks on in horror as Hillary Clinton is not elected the first female leader of the free world.
What chills most about The Final Year is how unprepared Team Obama was for the victory of Trump and the ease with which many of its hard-won policies could be unraveled. Was it blindness, hubris or a combination of both? The documentary lets that question hang in the air as a cautionary tale about what happens when a democracy is caught by surprise. It can’t happen here? It just did. Now what? Welcome to our new national nightmare.