High on my list of moviemaking don’ts is the use of Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin.’” Nothing against the song, which is a fine effort by the Nobel laureate; written in 1963, it’s a true anthem, its lyrics applicable to any era.
But plop it in a movie and heavy-handedness abounds — go directly to a cringe-worthy moment in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” for confirmation.
However, I am suspending my decree for “The Final Year,” a new documentary. By the time this chronicle of 2016 reaches its climax, Dylan’s words (not sung by him, in this case) seem more perceptive than ever.
“The Final Year” takes as its subject the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team, with a focus on three main players: Secretary of State John Kerry, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
President Barack Obama himself is interviewed only glancingly, breezing through like the groom at a wedding reception who drops pleasantries while moving from table to table. Most of the action takes place in a whirlwind, as Kerry jets off to the Middle East, Power visits Africa when she’s not excoriating Russia from the floor of the United Nations, and Rhodes hunkers down on Air Force One, working up a draft of the president’s next speech.
This inside glimpse at how government works is valuable. We get a sense of how small the West Wing at the White House really is, including the revelation that Rhodes sometimes retreats to the basement to work quietly.
Because diplomacy doesn’t always make the front page, it’s interesting to witness the details that go into overseas trips. These range from tiny things like Power presenting a book about U.S. National Parks as a gift in Cameroon to big things like Obama’s carefully-worded visit to Laos, where some of the millions of bombs dropped during the Vietnam War are still exploding underfoot today.
Director Greg Barker, a veteran of “Frontline,” avoids painting the Obama team in rosy colors, although the film isn’t too critical, either.
Inadvertently or not, “The Final Year” raises a question: Isn’t there a better way to do all this? The turmoil of foreign advisers pinballing from one sore subject to the next — today Syria, tomorrow Boko Haram — is frantic. (And this is when actual experts had the jobs.)
An assumption lies behind so much of what the foreign policy team is up to, which is that the USA should be responsible for solving international problems. Of course America’s interests are tied up in many of the world’s sticky situations, but if Kerry has any doubts about America being the world’s policeman, he doesn’t express them here.
While enlightening and generally engrossing, “The Final Year” tells only part of the story, a skim through a vital arena. At times it seems to over-value the adrenaline rush of being in this high-octane global game instead of what the game is about — and the fact that it isn’t a game. (This is related to the media’s insistence on covering the “horse race” aspect of elections.)
But the movie we see is probably different from the one originally planned — as Dylan put it, “the present now will later be past.” Early on in the film, the 2016 presidential campaign appears in the background.
Obama talks about creating a viable foreign policy in his last year so that “some other folks continue the process” when his crew is no longer around. Rhodes brushes off the possibility that Donald Trump could win, and when election day comes Power invites Gloria Steinem to a viewing party. (I’ll bet that party was as much fun as me watching the Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl at a Port Townsend bar.)
It’s one of those films, like “From Here to Eternity” or “Titanic,” where you know a giant historical event is going to happen at the end and overturn all the plans made by the characters. This fundamentally changes the movie, because we can’t watch the Obama staffers beam about the inroads they’ve made with Iran or Cuba without knowing what’s going to happen.
There’s an iceberg coming, and it’s the biggest, most stable iceberg you’ve ever seen, believe me.
“The Final Year” (3 stars)
A documentary chronicle of the Obama foreign-policy team, as they jet around the world during 2016. The film is something of a skim across a big subject, but it’s engrossing, and the material is overshadowed by an election result that nobody saw coming.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter
Opening Friday: Grand Illusion Cinema