Remember when the president of the United States was intelligent, compassionate, sensitive, worldly, respectful of women, kind, inclusive, trusted, friendly, honest, modern, hip and revered around the globe? It wasn’t so long ago.
In these days of misstep after misstep and outrage after outrage, nothing could be timelier than a look back at the last year of President Barack Obama’s tenure as he and his close-knit foreign policy team toured the world in a bid to cement his outreach brand of diplomacy.
This very academic—near emotionless—documentary directed by Greg Barker (Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden), shot by Erich Rowland and Martina Radwan, edited by Joshua Altman and Langdon Page with a tepid musical score by Phillip Sheppard, is sometimes about as exciting as a required college course. So why bother seeing it? Because it is the lasting record of a president and his cohorts as they tried to solve global problems.
The two crews, government and film, traipse through 21 countries, all following a dictum that is articulated well by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, a former journalist who believes in engagement-focused diplomacy, “Bear witness…get out into the field.” When the team visits five continents, and conducts person-to-person forums with locals and youths, you witness their dedication to their mission.
Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, puts their goals in perspective too, “American foreign policy… what we stand for … is why we act … thoughtful and circumspect.” Their sensitivity to people in other nations is extraordinary. The intricate ways they and National Security Advisor Susan Rice assist President Obama, as he represents the concerns of the U.S. government and its citizenry, is enlightening.
Watching the former first black president of the Harvard Law Review, turned Chicago community activist, turned Illinois State Senator, turned Junior U.S. Senator take his skillset on to a world stage is inspiring. Obama is thoughtful, self-assured, amiable and professional. He is well prepared to deliver a speech in Hiroshima that has to delicately play to Japanese people whose ancestors were the victims of atomic bombing.
Obama counsels with Secretary of State John Kerry on the controversial Iran deal. Kerry, a Vietnam War vet, is there when the team is in Ho Chi Minh City. A loosening of restrictions on Cuba, conferences in Nigeria and global warming in Greenland are also on view. As are the ravages of wars and natural disasters that have displaced millions of people who are looking for refuge.
The Final Year winds down into the tail end of 2016. Election results come in and the ambitious diplomatic surrogates get a sense that all their work could go down the drain. In a particularly crushing sequence, 37 women ambassadors from around the earth gather to watch election results, anticipating the triumph of the first female American president. The surprise ending to a hotly contested race reminds us all that politics and governing in the U.S. is never a straight line forward, or a steady climb up, or solid gains that cannot be rescinded.
Filmmaker Greg Barker has about as much style and flair as a wedding photographer. Yes, there is a measure of realism in his prying lens. Yes, the goals and achievements of these well-intentioned foreign dignitaries are evident. What’s lacking, sorely, is a verve in the filmmaking that would make this more than just an educational film. There is no extensive archival footage, no truly in-depth interviews, no memorable charts or peripheral materials to augment what’s on screen.
Humanizing glimpses of Samantha Powers taking care of family duties aside, this footage is dull in a “wonky” kind of way and visually unimpressive. In hindsight, Barker should have taken notes from director Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning doc An Inconvenient Truth on how to make a political/social documentary appeal to a mass audience.
Even with the aforementioned reservations, this peek at President Obama and the dedicated people who surrounded him is still enlightening.
Remember when the President of the United States was a stable, well-heeled, personable statesman?
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.