Calling all progressives: Who’s ready to relive the tsunami of dismay and stupefaction that came crashing down on Nov. 8, 2016? In case you’ve forgotten what the hangover after that presidential election felt like, there’s a new documentary to walk you through it all over again.
Set during the last 12 months of Barack Obama’s presidency, and centering on the day-to-day business of the administration’s foreign policy team — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, national security adviser Susan E. Rice and her deputy, Ben Rhodes — “The Final Year” is, on one level, a countdown clock to what some might characterize as Armageddon. It features fly-on-the-wall footage of White House staffers and officials, most of whom remain in denial, for much of the film, about Donald Trump’s electability. (It was Power, a producer on Greg Barker’s 2009 film, “Sergio,” who provided entree to the inner workings of the White House.)
One especially telling scene, about three-quarters of the way through, focuses on Rhodes, who, a few hours after Trump has won, tries to share his feelings on camera. For what seems like an eternity, in the dim light of a gray dawn, the speechwriter and professional communicator opens and closes his mouth — a fish out of water — but few actual words come out.
Rhodes is a lot more articulate these days. The 40-year-old former foreign-policy wonk, who has continued to work for Obama since leaving the White House — all while tinkering on his memoir and contributing to podcasts such as “Pod Save America” for Crooked Media — sat down recently for a joint interview with “The Final Year” director Barker. According to Rhodes, he remembers vividly what was going through his head — or, rather, not going through it.
“Anything I would have said then would have been an inadequate rationalization to make myself feel better,” he explains. “Donald Trump is so much the antithesis to a certain ethos: an ethos of inclusion and progress, of trying to be our better selves. . . . I just knew, in that moment, that all these things that I worked so hard on and cared so much about were endangered, and some of them were going to be undone.
“It felt like I had just run a marathon, and that — ” Rhodes pauses here, once again struck mute, before adding, “I don’t even know how to complete that analogy.”
After a moment, he adjusts his figure of speech: “President Obama often talks about the ‘relay race’ of regime change, and handing off the baton, which he does in the film. But — and maybe this is a better analogy than my first one — there I was, a runner staggering across the finish line and trying to get things in a better place — to get a relationship with Cuba, to get a Paris [climate] agreement — and then you want to hand off the baton, but there is no hand reaching back to take it.”
According to Barker, 55, Power has an even more apt metaphor. For the former ambassador, “The Final Year” is like a horror film in slow motion. Opening with an optimism that gradually erodes in the face of their mounting dread, it tells a story whose ending we know too well, but we still have to sit through.
Barker says he isn’t interested in making anyone suffer, although he admits that some audiences at early screenings were “totally depressed” by the time the closing credits rolled. But Barker compares the foregone conclusion of “The Final Year” to the unhappy ending of another movie he calls equally “wrenching” yet worthwhile.
“Is ‘Titanic’ an uplifting film?” he asks.
As with a fiction film, Barker thinks of his protagonists less as documentary subjects than as characters, in this case in something he calls a “band movie” — a tale of a metaphorical musical group, with Obama as the frontman and Rhodes as the self-effacing songwriter. (Presumably, Kerry, Power and Rice are the world’s nerdiest backing musicians.) “This is a group of people who have been together for almost a decade, gathering around a lead singer,” Barker says. “But the band is breaking up. They’re doing their final album.”
The theme of this story — and not mere reportage — gives “The Final Year” a weirdly meta quality. Part of the documentary deals with the controversy that arose after a May, 2016, profile in the New York Times that characterized Rhodes, who once dreamed of writing fiction, as using his skills to create an “echo chamber” — one in which he spun fictions, not facts, about, say, the nuclear agreement with Iran, to a gullible press.
“That was a very unpleasant experience, as the movie shows,” Rhodes says, in what seems like understatement. “The article turned me into a one-dimensional character: the bad guy, the spin guy.” According to Rhodes, whom Barker situates as the film’s emotional center, the only way to counter that negative perception was to become not more guarded, but less.
“You have to make a decision,” Rhodes says of the crossroads he faces midway through Barker’s film. “Do I put up a wall? Become a talking-points machine? Negotiate my quotes with every journalist? I decided to make the opposite choice. If I don’t like the way I’m being, in my view, mischaracterized, I have to give people more access. Oddly, those two threads — one very personal and one very meta — came together and informed the choice to let Greg build his film around me.”
Barker says the decision to focus on Rhodes, whom he call his “Everyman,” ultimately serves the film’s true story, which is not the election or policy abstractions, but the people — the complicated, passionate, flawed humans — who shape change. According to a statement issued through Obama spokeswoman Katie Hill, the former president agrees, saying that “The Final Year” shows “how hard the diplomats and civil servants in the U.S. government work on behalf of the American people and our values.” Obama, Hill wrote, hopes that the movie “will lead young people to consider how they can get involved to make a positive difference in the world.”
Sounds like a talking-points machine.
Barker instinctively knew that audiences would relate to Rhodes — “the guy [with] the backpack who sometimes can’t even get the backpack into his minivan,” he says — better than the film’s boldface names, including Rhodes’s boss.
“Ben wasn’t in the Cabinet,” Barker says. “He didn’t have a large security detail following him around everywhere. Kerry is very interesting, but he’s more of a public figure. Samantha is a U.N. ambassador. The president is the president.” Barker says that editing the film in such a way that it focuses not on the Great and Powerful Oz, but on the man behind the curtain is, in a sense, “just another way of constructing a character.”
Ultimately, Obama might be right about “The Final Year.”
“We’ve screened it a dozen or more times,” the director says, “and I’ve had at least five episodes where people have written to me or Samantha, where they’ve said — and these are young people — ‘I was going to work in business, but now I want to work in public service or diplomacy,’ all because of seeing this film.”
The Final Year (Unrated, 89 minutes). At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.