Greg Barker's engaging and resolutely un-dishy travelogue, The Final Year, finds a film crew trailing President Barack Obama and several cabinet members and staffers — Samantha Power, U.N. ambassador; Secretary of State John Kerry; Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser and speechwriter — over the course of 2016. Team Obama circumnavigates the globe, practicing what he preaches: thoughtful diplomacy, engaged listening, dogged efforts at securing compromises and ceasefires. Everyone looks somber, run ragged, but still somewhat awed. They look adult as they chase peace in Syria, a climate accord in Paris, a nuclear deal in Iran. Rhodes lists the State Department's 2016 priorities in the earlier scenes, and the moment plays as grim comedy: The current administration's list is the same, just backward, right down to Rhodes' own passion project, normalization of relations with Cuba.
The undertaking is ambitious, even singular. Have documentarians ever been allowed into the room at so many high-level government meetings and summits? But it becomes clear quickly that Barker has few unguarded moments to show us. Don't expect raw statecraft. The filmmakers offer us glimpses of the diplomatic life but too little telling detail. Again and again, we see planes land, delegations enter conference rooms, Rhodes crafting speeches, people beaming toward the secretary or the president. We see Kerry sign the final text of the Iran deal, but -- much like in the actual 2016 that we all lived through, the 2016 that we're still in some ways living through -- we hear no urgent and coherent defense of that deal's specifics. In this, the film re-creates the bubble existence of a squad of high-minded professionals so certain of their causes that they don't bother to sell them.