DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. For his documentary "The Final Year," filmmaker Greg Barker had access to several members of President Obama's foreign policy team as they set about negotiating an arms deal in Iran and a climate accord in Paris and managing a response to the refugee crisis in Syria and parts of Africa. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Greg Barker's quietly devastating behind-the-scenes documentary "The Final Year" tracks the administration of Barack Obama from late 2015 to the early morning of January 20, 2017 with special attention to three figures other than the president - U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Secretary of State John Kerry. This is it, their last chance to cement a foreign policy legacy as the clock ticks down.
But we know something they don't until the last 15 minutes of the film. The next president will be bent on undoing everything they're trying furiously to accomplish. The movie is just under an hour and a half but feels dense, exhausting as Barker skips among his hard-charging protagonists. Now the 72-year-old Kerry is in Vietnam, now traveling by boat amid spectacular, melting Greenland icebergs, now in the U.N., facing off against the Russians over the bombing of a humanitarian convoy in Syria.
The wonkish, hyper-focused Ben Rhodes is often alongside Kerry, but his chief task is the 2016 Iran arms deal which prompted the ire of Republicans as well as a barbed profile in The New York Times magazine in which he mocked the press corps as gullible. His apology to reporters is awkward and a mite unconvincing. But Barker seems principally drawn to Samantha Power. He follows her from her family's apartment to refugee camps in Africa. Although she has no trace of a brogue, she came to the U.S. at age 9 from Ireland. And we see her reduce an audience of new citizens and herself to tears in a paean to immigrants that now seems sadly quaint.
Anyone who reads her exhaustive book "A Problem From Hell: America And The Age Of Genocide" can understand how fiercely determined she is that nothing like Bosnia will happen on this president's watch. In one scene, outside the U.N., Barker cuts back and forth between Power in a VR headset that lets her virtually wander through a refugee camp and her breathless attempt to convince the Saudi ambassador to take the same virtual journey.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE FINAL YEAR")
SAMANTHA POWER: (As herself) They'll put a pair of glasses on you, and they take you into the Zaatari refugee camp.
ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) OK.
POWER: (As herself) Thank you. Thank you. Wow, it's very powerful.
And then they hook you up to talk to a person in the camp.
Wow. This is amazing.
(Foreign language spoken). I'm well.
Brings home the serious stakes.
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) I'll do it. I'll do it. Thank you.
POWER: (As herself) It's just right there. And I'm going to try to go to the SG and get him to keep it because it's...
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Yes.
POWER: (As herself) If we're trying to raise money and, you know, get people to support these people in the camps and, you know...
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Excellent. Excellent. Thank you.
POWER: (As herself) Anyway - but otherwise bad day because of what's going on in the...
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) I know. I know.
POWER: (As herself) It's unbelievable. They hit the Free Syrian Army.
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself) Yes, they did.
POWER: (As herself) Of course they did. Seriously, if you do nothing else I ever ask you to do, just do this thing.
AL-MOUALLIMI: (As himself). I'll do it.
POWER: (As herself) Really. Really. OK. It's really amazing. It's right there.
EDELSTEIN: Some reviewers have charged that "The Final Year" is Obama propaganda. But it's hardly misleading to portray Power, Rhodes and Kerry as idealists determined to carry the ball forward on climate change, human rights and arms reduction. And haunting the film is a tragic failure - Power's inability to prevail on the president to intervene forcefully in the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. She's unprepared for his big-picture political calculations and crushed by them.
The Obama Barker shows us is an inspirational figure. He visits Hiroshima and Laos. He tells a group of students in China, sometimes, we think people are only motivated by money, by power. They are also motivated by stories. His example - the United States Declaration of Independence. While Power points to the numbers of people on the ground who are suffering and dying, Obama insists that deaths from war are way down compared to the last century and that, quote, "all trends in democracy are going in the right direction."
In the context of the film, that plays a little abstract. This is an experiential documentary, meaning Barker sticks to what his camera sees. There's nothing about Obama's refusal to make public all that was known about Russian interference in the election. And Donald Trump appears mostly on TV screens. But Ben Rhodes does muse on the agenda of Vladimir Putin, which has less, he says, to do with Russian interests than Putin's own more wayward ones. Putin looms alarmingly large over the last scenes.
It's hard to know how to read Barker's ending, which features footage of Obama at the Parthenon, along with an up-close interview in which he takes the long view. Obama suggests that this election is a mere blip in the positive arc of humankind. Meanwhile, Samantha Power packs up her office, and Barker plays her out with a surprisingly melancholy gospel cover of "The Times They Are A-Changin'," the understatement of the millennium.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, is American democracy in trouble? Professor Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say it's threatened by partisan politics and a president who denigrates the media and impugns the integrity of elections.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's hard to think of two institutions that are more fundamental to democracy than our elections and our free press.
DAVIES: Their new book is "How Democracies Die." Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL AND FRED HERSCH'S "BLUE MONK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.