I love politics. I could read articles published by The Atlantic and BBC all day long and for days on end. I love learning about and discussing current events, and war and international relations fascinate me so much I earned a degree in the study of the two.
So, naturally, when I moved to Toronto I immediately looked up film venues (the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the largest public film festivals in the world) and I found the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema. The Hot Docs Cinema is, luckily, only a ten-minute commute from my apartment (!!!) and is interesting in two ways: there’s only one viewing area, and they primarily showcase documentaries (each week there’s a different feature documentary, although there’s a few different documentaries playing each day). I went for the first time a few weeks ago and watched Italy: Love it or Leave it, a documentary about the current state of affairs in Italy. I didn’t love the film, so I’m not going to discuss it here. During the trailers, however, there was a trailer for the HBO film The Last Year, a documentary about the last year of the Obama administration. I immediately made a note about the film so I could look up the show times when I got home.
A few days ago a friend and I went to watch the documentary are here’s what I thought.
Before I delve into my review, here’s a bit of background about the film itself. The Final Year was directed by Greg Barker, a documentary filmmaker who focuses on American foreign policy. Accordingly, this documentary focuses on primarily on the efforts of John Kerry, then Secretary of State, Samantha Powers, then American Ambassador to the United Nations, and Ben Rhodes, then deputy national security advisor to the President. The main issue areas discussed within the film are the nuclear deal with Iran, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the normalization of relations with Cuba. Susan Rice and President Obama make small appearances within the documentary, but the main focus is on the three aforementioned members of the administration.
So, having watched the documentary here’s what I think. Firstly, as a student I had read a lot of Samantha Powers’ work and was very excited to see her on-screen. I knew more about Powers going into the film than I did any other member of Obama’s administration. Prior to joining Barack Obama’s team, Powers was a professor at Harvard (specifically at the Kennedy School of Government). In the bluntest terms, Powers is an idealist and altruist. I do not mean to say she ignores realist arguments, I mean to say that her philosophy of politics is grounded in a belief that governments should help people. She is left-leaning in that she believes the government can and should do good and can and should actively try to increase the wellbeing of American citizens and individuals around the world. John Kerry is very similar in his political philosophy.
On the same side but a little ways away, we have Ben Rhodes. Rhodes is more realist in his sense of the world. He believes governments can and should do good in international relations, but he is much more likely to make decisions based on the selfish, power-hungry, and negative parts of human nature than either Powers of Kerry. This doesn’t make Rhodes a bad person, in fact having finished the documentary I liked Rhodes best, instead it points towards his different philosophy of politics. Rhodes is relatable and frank, and he sometimes gets in trouble for his frankness. My perception of Rhodes was that he is an incredibly intelligent individual, with an exceptional grasp on language and intellgent to an extent that he get frustrated when he sees other individuals (i.e. political media) not paying attention to the things that matter. When I say that I’m pointing towards scenes in the documentary when Rhodes gets frustrated with reporters because instead of focusing on foreign policy issues they focus on Donald Trumps Twitter feed.
The documentary manages to humanize individuals that we perceive as robotic, bureatric cogs in a system. To balance each individual as a person (i.e. Powers with her children on their way to school, or Rhodes teaching his daughter how to count) but also as a powerful political figure (seeing Kerry rush along to meetings in different countries, seeing Powers negotiating with ambassadors at the UN) is a massively difficult task, yet Barker managed to do so. Obama, Kerry, Powers, Rhodes, and Rice were all trying to grapple with massive international issues that affected millions of lives, yet at the end of all their international meetings they were individuals who worked with pen and paper and could achieve no resolution on their own.
Barker, if anything, managed to show how complex and complicated the system of international relations is. Decisions like whether to enter the Syrian War or how to normalize relations with Cuba, affect millions of people, and yet these decisions require research, negotiations, brain-storming from a small amount of people. And despite what the employees of the West Wing might do, there are various other governments who may want the same thing or vastly different things, so all the hours spent towards trying to achieve a goal can be immediately dashed by the other side. We see this when Kerry and Powers discuss the week-long ceasefire in Syria and how an air strike that accidentally killed around 60 Syrian soldiers catalyzed a Russian or Syrian air strike on clearly-marked UN humanitarian provisions. International relations is complicated, immensely so, but at the end it all comes down to individuals who are in charge of making decisions and individuals who are also fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers.
As a political science and history graduate this documentary is exactly what I thought it would be. My friend, who doesn’t immerse himself in politics and current events like I do, but is also left-leaning like I am, liked it because he learned about the complexity of foreign policy issues. He said it got him thinking and gave him a wider perspective that before he watched the movie. And I think that’s the point of any documentary, to provide information and facts, and to give you a wider perspective than you might have had before.
Have you heard of or watched The Final Year? If so, what did you think? Did you know very much about American foreign policy before watching the documentary, or did you walk into the documentary with surface understanding? Share your thought below 🙂