The Final Year–The End of a Term

 

The Final Year

The Final Year, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary, covers January 2016 to January 2017 of the Barack Obama administration . It is quietly devastating and demoralizing footage of the last twelve months of foreign statesmanship before the Trump administration.

Don’t expect that The Final Year will give you a portrait of the 44th president in the looming shadow of what was to come. The Final Year actually follows Samantha Power, U.N. Ambassador and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, as they almost inexhaustibly pursue Obama’s foreign policy agenda with heart and soul. The empathy they have for global unity is palpable. The Final Year documentary

The undoing of every last element of what the people onscreen are busy accomplishing is the not-so-subtle theme of The Final Year. The power of this documentary is gut-wrenching.

Tense, empathetic Samantha Power doesn’t avoid exposure to the horrific pain of parents in refugee camps. She is especially moving as she fights tears in the name of duty, having been an immigrant from Ireland herself. Outraged by an attack on a humanitarian convoy in Syria almost certainly ordered by Putin, Power shouts at the implacable Russian ambassador, “Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”

The tireless 72-year-old John Kerry, who travels by boat amid spectacular but melting Greenland icebergs, is conflicted– as a Vietnam War vet– in his attitude toward military invention in the Middle East. And the brilliant Rhodes, whose magic as a wordsmith provides alchemy to Obama’s speeches in Vietnam, Laos, and Hiroshima, is rendered speechless in the immediate aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.

While Obama’s intellectual demeanor continues to inspire his staff, The Final Year rather surprisingly also suggests Obama’s emotional distancing, an abstraction or cutting off from what would certainly follow: the eradication of many of the policies his administration fought for. He believes that deaths from global conflict are far fewer compared to the last century and that democracy is going in the right direction. Power and Rhodes, both of whom have great pride and zeal in working for President Obama, nevertheless disagree.

As The Final Year concludes, Obama supporters are likely to find the movie terribly crushing and bleak. And viewers who opposed him? They probably won’t be interested in watching The Final Year at all.

 

Note:  Available on Netflix as a DVD.

 “House of Cards” (Final Season)–A Different Shuffle

House of Cards Season 6

In the earlier five seasons of House of Cards, Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) represented the Machiavellian Chief Whip then Vice President, and then President. As he manipulated his fellow party colleagues, foreign prime ministers (principally Russia), we witnessed the dark truths of American politics by a despotic megalomaniac.

Now, in Season 6, Frank Underwood is dead, but we don’t know how.  His widow, Claire Underwood (the phenomenal Robin Wright) is President and has inherited her dead husband’s enemies.

Dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death, and declaring that “the reign of the middle-aged white man is over”, Claire clashes with corporate moguls, the Russian prime minister, and her own vice president.

Trying to forge her own path as President, Claire takes no prisoners and feels no regret. But Claire’s late husband still casts a long shadow. “Frank’s legacy” is the cornerstone of the series finale.

House of Cards Season 6

The powerful ending of this season of House of Cards is dramatically sharpened and has an even darker theme: gender issues and patriarchy infused with a stench of misogyny. Claire’s dark secrets venomously boil over, ratcheting towards an ignominious confrontation with Doug Stamper, Frank Underwood’s obsessively devoted acolyte who cannot forgive Claire for what he imagines she is doing to Frank’s legacy.

Overlaid with the backlash of the first female President, we see Claire have to disassociate from her husband’s despicable acts. Nevertheless, her political enemies delight in accusing her of being guilty of Frank’s sins.

Frank’s reach is beyond the grave. As Claire’s enemies come close to impeaching her, Claire does what she and Frank did the last time they got close to defeat: she manufactures a crisis. Claiming that terrorists are attempting to acquire a nuclear bomb, she creates a military standoff between U.S. and Russian troops in Syria.

It’s the thunderous theme of House of Cards: Power is fragile– and we watch as the powerful can be brought tumbling down by the smallest misstep. Claire’s own reign is ultimately doomed to fail, playing a near-impossible game, but as we watch we don’t know how or when.

House of Cards in its final season ends on a dramatically different, more ambiguous and amoral note, than any of its previous seasons or its BBC predecessor. What Frank and Claire did may not really be out of the ordinary. House of Cards is more about the undetected, malignant form of insatiable power: more difficult to expose and defeat.

Totally unexpected, this season of House of Cards is a different and more frightening look at unhinged power. Robin Wright is a marvel to behold!

 

Note:  I have reviewed Seasons 1-4 previously.

 

“Queen of Katwe”–Queen of Chess

Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe, an  indie film based on a true story, features 10-year-old newcomer Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) living in the shanty town of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda. She is an impoverished little girl who is in a constant struggle to survive along with her mother Harriet (the extraordinary Academy-Award-winning Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years a Slave” and “Black Panther) and younger brothers. Queen of Katwe movie

 

After Phiona meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo of “Selma”), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess, her outlook becomes more aspirational than selling vegetables at the local market. Under Katende’s guidance Phiona develops into a chess prodigy, becoming not only a champion player but also a scholarship student in  an elite school. She now has an opportunity to escape the misery of her family life. She refuses to let her gender, social status, or lack of an education interfere with her dream to become Uganda’s national chess champion.

One of the more emotionally authentic subplots in Queen of Katwe is the tenuous relationship between Katende and Phiona’s mother. As the mother begins to worry about her daughter’s promising future distancing her, we see a mother-daughter relationship pictured as loving but also awkwardly threatening. Under the direction of Mira Nair, there is no artifice, subplot cliches, or unnecessary romance.

Queen of Katwe is appealing to all ages, and a positive domestic vision of a family with a single mother living in squalor. This film is first and foremost about a young girl’s empowerment and her mother’s unconditional love and acceptance.

The actors are standouts: Newcomer Madina Nalwanga exudes the authenticity and spirit essential for evoking truth. Oyelowo further establishes himself as a powerful presence. And, of course, there is Lupita Nyong’o who must take a stock mother-figure role and turn it into something else, setting every scene with a fire-in-the-belly strength to match Oyelowo. This acting triumvirate makes Queen of Katwe a crowd-pleasing family film for the holiday season.