The Final Year is Greg Barker’s (Manhunt, LFF 2013 Documentary Competition) intimate, fly-on-the-wall record of captivating moments from the year-long curtain call for the Obama administration.
If you have never seen a documentary on the subject of Barack Obama, the 44th and first African American President of the United States, this isn’t the place to start. For that, see Inside Obama’s White House, BBC 2, a 4-part 2016 documentation of his administration from election to the dawn of his second term.
Obama is interestingly sidelined in favour of his more accessible inner circle, more accurately key players in the much-maligned-by-Republicans foreign policy, as they worked tirelessly, quite literally, to solidify their gains in international relations, painstakingly negotiated over eight years: Secretary of State John Kerry; United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; and Deputy National Security Advisor, and chief speech writer Ben Rhodes.
Through the three, however, there is no mistaking that, for all of the criticism that the administration suffered over two terms, this was a truly dedicated, hard-working team who did their utmost to live up to the hope and promises of their leader in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and really had an ever-present appreciation of the consequences of their actions. They came across as acutely aware of what was at stake with the election and re-election of the first black president.
Brilliantly but subtly communicated, is the effect that a genuine statesman and leader can have, as a trickle down effect, on his staff. And so, very quietly, you realise just how much trouble the US is now in.
Kerry, a war veteran and lifelong antiwar campaigner and family man, cuts a remarkable, tireless figure, as he reminds us that just because he’s on one continent dealing with X, doesn’t mean he’s neglecting A through W!
Power engages with the Nigerian mothers and campaigners for the recovery of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls and urges other Ambassadors to really get to grips with some of the issues their countries are facing together, such as using the VR set up for climate change.
Rhodes writes detailed speeches he knows become mere outlines for the pensive diplomat and Nobel Peace Laureate, Obama.
Obama himself does the consummate ‘every man’, whilst radiating a statesmanship and altruism too rarely found today. He even talks about ‘switching up’ responsibilities and sacrifices within a relationship to keep things healthy. And you see him actively engage the young people of the world, which we now know informs the great plan of the Obama Foundation to bring together and nurture future community leaders on a grand scale.
Inevitably, we see with painful hindsight the assumptions of succession as the fateful 2016 election looms. There was very little in the way of knowing laughter from the audience, as the on-screen players gave voice to their hopes for the next president.
And then, there comes the inevitable incomprehension as America bucked and put Donald Trump in the White House. Rhodes sits there, his gift of words completely failing him for minute upon minute upon devastated minute. Power sits, cradling her youngest, looking with abject apology at her sleeping carefree form. Understandably, Kerry and Obama are not caught on camera for this.
What emerges, then, is a portrait of an administration keen to secure its legacy on various issues, as well as a concerted attempt to shift the perception of America’s approach to foreign policy, from one enforced by military might to one of engagement, diplomacy and consensus.
It is a rich work that offers insight into the mechanisms of international relations, and suggests what Donald Trump now proves daily – that diplomacy is far tougher than belligerence.
The Final year was released in the USA on October 8th 2017. It screened as part of BFI London Film Festival Sun 8th & Mon 9th October.