In one shot in “The Final Year,” a documentary about President Obama’s national-security team during the last months of his presidency, the camera zooms in on a dead cockroach in the West Wing. An off-camera voice explains how the building is so old that roaches roam free and people can hear rats scurrying in the pipes overhead. Feel free to draw your own metaphors.
“The Final Year” is now available on HBO and showing in select theaters across the country. Although the film features Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, it focuses on United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, a 29-year-old speechwriter with no foreign policy experience when he joined the administration in early 2009.
As the world implodes around them and the political landscape at home shifts in unforeseen ways, largely in protest to his reign, Obama and his advisors blithely find time to lavish praise on each other and themselves for the “arc of progress” they commanded over eight years. The film is a view into their collective incompetence, rooted in a combination of naiveté and smug superiority and fed with college-level platitudes about war, diplomacy, and engagement. Knowing how the story ends is the only thing that makes it tolerable to watch 90 minutes of their preening and moralizing.
The Least Experienced Guy Is the Star
Rhodes is pretty much the star of the show, and he knows it. His performance might remind you of every quasi-serious role George Clooney has ever played: He acts like he’s unaffected but it’s obvious that each word, hand gesture, and facial expression is stagecraft designed to make him look pensive and really, really smart.
Rhodes holds his gaze on someone just a bit too long, either to make the person uncomfortable or to non-verbally say “F-you.” His twitching and pacing are supposed to show an indefatigable thinking man in constant motion. As one of Obama’s longest-serving and closest advisors to the president—Rice explains the “mind-meld” between the two—Rhodes is never far away from the commander-in-chief, seated close to him in meetings and whispering advice in his ear.
This explains why Rhodes is so impressed with himself: “The first thing that struck me when I walked into [the West Wing] was how small it was. Then I realized, this is it, there are like thirty people who are setting the direction for the entire U.S. government and the world.” He boasts about how he’s joined Obama “on every foreign trip except one,” and while sitting in a summit room waiting for the president he remarks how he’s been “in hundreds of these.”
One of Rhodes’ key diplomatic objectives from the outset was to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, a project on which he was the lead negotiator: “We got a lot farther than I imagined,” he says. Pat, pat.
Rhodes repeatedly cites what he views as the administration’s top national-security achievements: Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Paris climate accord. At one point, while musing about what more could’ve been done to halt the murder, rape, torture, destruction, and resulting refugee crisis in Syria, Rhodes says, “if we would have gone full-bore into Syria, we wouldn’t be sitting here with a climate agreement, we’d have no Iran agreement, we wouldn’t have had the time to do Cuba.” Sorry, Syrians, you were sold out for carbon emissions targets.
Echoing his boss (or could be the other way around), Rhodes insists climate change is a bigger threat to humanity than the Islamic State—“only one thing could destroy the world”—and dismisses any rebuke to that grievous misjudgment as “cable news” fodder. Rhodes also admits the administration miscalculated Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The error we made is that Putin doesn’t pursue Russia’s interests, it is to pursue Putin’s interest. We figured it out, but it took us too long.”
John Kerry Comes Off as the Empty Mind He Is
Viewers are reminded what good fortune it was that Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election, sparing us four years of his banality and pretentiousness. He describes the Iran nuclear deal “as measurable action in progress,” and talks about the serious challenges faced by the administration, including “Syria, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, climate.”
The Obama administration’s focus on climate change was an egregious waste of tax money, talent, and political capital. To think that major international crises were bargaining chips to win support for a meaningless, costly climate pact is disgraceful. The film also shows Kerry doing the obligatory Al Gore photo-op, looking at floating icebergs, as if “extreme diplomacy” could stop them from melting.
Rhodes has an influence on Kerry, too. Before one speech, Rhodes preps Kerry on his presentation and asks about questions afterwards. Kerry indicates he will take as many questions as the press wants, but Rhodes cuts him off and instructs the secretary of state to only answer two. “Let us deal with the rest. You don’t want to subject yourself to too many.”
I will spare you the obscenities that flew out of my mouth every time Rice appeared on-screen.
‘All the Trendlines Are Going in the Wrong Direction’
The only likable figure is Power. A mother of young children, she’s shown trying to juggle motherhood with an extremely demanding job that requires constant travel. An Irish immigrant and compassionate woman easily moved to tears, Power was probably better suited to fill a less-visible position, or at least one that didn’t require a lot of moxie.
She meets with Syrian refugees, then travels to Nigeria to visit parents of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. While she’s genuinely distraught by their plight, Power can do little more than offer empty words of sympathy, and says the United States “will never give up” helping find the girls. During the trip, Power’s motorcade accidentally kills a seven-year-old boy who ran into the street. She stops by the parents’ home to express her condolences.
There is tension between Rhodes and and Power over Obama’s final U.N. speech. Power explains the “fundamental differences” between the Obama-Rhodes’ stance that the world is generally in good shape, and her much more pragmatic view where “65 million people are displaced” and “all the trendlines of democracy are going in the wrong direction.”
She clicks off a list of nearly 20 countries that are in complete chaos. Power is proven right shortly thereafter, when a tenuous Syrian ceasefire breaks down, and the country devolves into what one news outlet can be heard describing as “a complete meltdown of humanity.”
Then, election night. Power invited Gloria Steinem, Madeline Albright, and 37 female UN ambassadors to her home to watch the election coverage: The mood and facial expressions change dramatically as state after state is awarded to Trump. Power was mocked for her comment in Politico about wanting “to milk the soft power dividend of this moment,” but that’s just how she talks.
After the election is called for Trump, Rhodes is filmed sitting outside the Javits Center, alone. He’s at his most Clooney-ish in this scene, struggling for several minutes to come up with a reaction, only to conclude with, “I can’t put it into words.”
“The Final Year” is a reminder of Obama’s chaotic and weak approach to foreign policy, and the mess they left behind for the Trump administration: Plenty of cockroaches and rats around the world to chase.