Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 16, 2018 2:28 pm 
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Look back and shed a tear

What it was like in the Obama administration's last year: optimism, quiet work behind the scenes.

After a year of Trump, returning to the end of the Obama administration is a shock. For those of us unhappy with what has happened in the past year it may be an escape into a better, almost unreal world of decency, understatement, admirable goals. "The Final Year:" doesn't that title have an ominous ring, as if heralding the beginning of the end? The material guarantees our interest, regardless of the treatment. You may look backward, and shed a tear.

Alas, however, the treatment could have been better. This isn't the kind of in-depth and analytical political film about key issues or people that might have been. It is not a systematic assessment, not a searching survey. Rather, it is a collection of scenes that add up to a flattering picture of a few key figures close to the president, almost like a publicity film. We get glimpses of the mood, and the world, areas like diplomacy, emigration, disarmament, climate change, and the environment, where the new administration has been seeking to tear down what the Obama administration worked hard to build up, for eight years. This is what was, with its contradictions.

But The Final Year also has a certain undeniable intimacy about it. It gets close (if only momentarily) to three key figures of Obama's foreign policy team. (This in itself provokes thought: the new administration has no such team.)

The film contains some facts that you will not have known. The White House rooms are surprisingly small. The White House has large cockroaches, and at night you can hear rats scurrying around overhead. There are paper coffee cups that have the seal of the president of the United States printed on them. Ben Rhodes, Obama's Assistant National Security Advisor, is an understated right-hand man. He was transformed by "9/11" from aspiring novelist to public servant. He writes speeches for the President, and he wrote a pacifist-leaning one to deliver at Hiroshima. Rhodes has a spartan secret hideaway to work in when he is really stressed in a White House sub-basement. He doesn't type on Macs, but a small black Dell laptop. We frequently see big complimentary photographs of Obama here and there on White House walls. But other than that, there are few indications of what the Obama White House style was like. Perhaps to respect privacy, there are few glimpses here of Michelle and the daughters.

John Kerry, Secretary of State, is chief negotiator of the Iran Nuclear Accord, signed in these final months. Samantha Power, bringing a journalist's sensibility to her job, went to work for Obama early on and became the United States' Ambassador to the United Nations. Surprise fact: she emigrated to the US as a child from her native Ireland. Some of these people followed by the film (Ben, Samantha, especially Ben) are longtime Obama associates and friends. John Kerry's background as an eventual Vietnam War opponent inspired the President to rely on him. The President likes "stories." He sees the Declaration of Independence as a "story" that can inspire, or interest, young Asians.

The sense of a countdown, of little time remaining to do important things, comes especially with Secretary of State John Kerry: Kerry, though 72, is someone who an aide says "has a boundless amount of energy," and that would appear to be true. We see him rushing off, talking to his wife by phone whom he has evidently not seen for some time, and now going to Vienna to make an urgent, even if challenged, effort to achieve peace in that worst of places, Syria.

At some point, here, when Ben Rhodes is visiting Laos, the image of Trump finally comes forward, an ugly threat, for he is the Republican Presidential candidate, and the "ugly rhetoric" is being heard. But the film shows us that Rhodes is sure Hillary Clinton will win. His conviction persists up to the last four months. For many of us, it persisted up to election night, so this hardly seems unusual. We know otherwise now, of course. Thus we see a dark cloud beginning to hover over the administration's last months.

A moment of truth-telling: in Laos, Obama himself speaks, acknowledging Nixon's and the US's secret war there that dropped more bombs than on Germany and Japan, the lingering unexploded bombs still killing and maiming Laotians.

Samantha Powers may be the best truth-teller seen here. Besides an ability we see in action to touch emigrants with her own personal emigrant story, she emerges as remarkable among American UN Ambassadors in her serious effort to travel to see the horrors of Boko Haram, the Islamist "state" that has wreaked deadly havoc in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon, killing tens of thousands and displacing 2.3 million, ranked by the Global Terrorism Index as the world's deadliest terror group in 2015. Powers visits victims. But what does all this add up to? We don't know - though Kerry's signing of the Iran Nuclear treaty early in the film signals one big administration accomplishment. We hear voices, unidentified, declaring Obama a US foreign policy disaster. What should we think? The film can't say.

A telling moment toward the end: Obama's last speech to the UN General Assembly, written by Ben Rhodes, is presented as dramatically out of touch in its optimism, and Samantha Powers radically disagrees with it. She describes the world she faces: a world of 65 million displaced, Yemen and Syria failed states, half a dozen African nations in tragic chaos. Obama's UN speech seems to chortle at the lack of world war and the peacefulness of major (First World) cities. Do he and his speechwriter Rhodes live in a bubble?

But maybe, this sequence goes on to suggest, that bubble is actually an area of quietly effective behind-the-scenes work: much such work was done by Kerry, Powers, and Obama at the UN on the day of that over-optimistic speech. Sadly, a US military blunder in Syria and Russian - or Putin's - desire to undermine their agreement, destroys this progress. Yet a theme of this film is that the quiet work is what counts - a contrast to the world of bombastic stands and late-night tweets in which the Trump administration now chaotically dwells.

Comes election night, and we get a firsthand view of Samantha Power up late with a child across her lap, sad-faced, as the shocking surprise arrives that Trump has won and is the new President; Ben Rhodes tries to express his feelings to the cameraman, but stammers, literally speechless. Eventually, he says this man will not have any sane person to shield the world from what he can do as US President.

Not surprisingly, however, Obama himself ends on an optimistic note. The true work, he says, is done quietly, behind the scenes. History zigzags. Maybe, Rhodes says, the zig of Trump is needed (to scare America straight). "Maybe there's a different happy ending," are Rhodes's last words.

Obama's goodbye reminds me of Oliver in Guadagnino's Call Me by Your Name, whose signoff is "Later." Cool, matter-of-fact. "Good. "Preciate it. Arright!!" Obama says, as he leaves this film, if not our lives, waving, dressed in gray. "See you guys. We all good? We outta here?" And off he goes, through a doorway, surrounded by young men in suits.

The Final Year, 89 mins., debuted at Toronto; shown also at London and Amsterdam. US theatrical release begins 19 Jan. 2018. Metacritic rating 63%.

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