The Final Year, 2017.
Directed by Greg Barker.
Featuring Barack Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes.
A documentary offering an insider’s account of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office at The White House. This behind the scenes view reveals the inner workings of the Obama administration as eight years in power draws to a close.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post has a companion piece. Not that it was planned that way but, as his latest juggernaut rolls into town, another film about American politics arrives on the same day. Both have occupants of The White House in the spotlight. For Spielberg, it’s a shadowy Richard Nixon, under siege from the press about how his and his predecessors’ Vietnam War policy. The president at the centre of documentary The Final Year is much more recent. Barack Obama. And he opens proceedings by making a speech about the sacrifices made by soldiers fighting overseas, picking up exactly where The Post left off.
Revealing is the word with this documentary, one where director Greg Barker and his crew really are the proverbial flies on the wall, observing Obama, John Kerry, the US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Security and Communications Advisor Ben Rhodes as they keep to a punishing schedule in an effort to achieve as much as possible during that final year in office. Whoever the next president is, they all know the clock is ticking.
This is a pro-Obama documentary, but that’s not to say the main players are always bathed in soft focus light. John Kerry is a major player and he comes across as being an active and involved Vice President. In a role that’s often regarded as being toothless, he’s energetic and committed. Witness his speech at the UN after an attack on a road convoy in Syria which destroyed food destined for refugees. His anger at the response from the Russian delegate is laid out for all to see showing that, at 70, his spirit is anything but dimmed. It’s not the first time he’s been on the sharp end of conflict: a veteran of Vietnam, he joined the protest movement afterwards – another hark back to The Post.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to smile and nod at the conviction within the team that the next president will be Hillary Clinton. It’s crossed Samantha Power’s mind that maybe, just maybe, there could be an upset, but she doesn’t want to believe it. And, clever though he may be, Ben Rhodes hasn’t even contemplated it: the idea is just too ridiculous. But, as they all watch the results come through on TV, he’s the one that retreats outside in shock, unable to comprehend what’s just happened. He’s staring at the probability of everything he’s worked so hard to construct – his biggest achievement was the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba – dissolving as soon as Trump takes power. It’s shattering.
He and Power are open about their different approaches to politics: they occasionally clash, but they appear to accept this as part of the job. Power is formidable, often labelled as the conscience of the administration. She comes from an immigrant Irish family, something she’s never forgotten and which brings out her more emotional side when she speaks at a citizenship ceremony. She’s a determined character, but one whose capacity for empathy with refugees is enormous. Watch her persistently encourage another diplomat – who clearly doesn’t want to know – to experience a virtual reality visit to a refugee camp. She simply refuses to be fobbed off although, at the time, she doesn’t seem to get her way.
Little details really bring the film alive, and allow us to see the main players as people, with all their failings. Rhodes gets into a people carrier, complete with heavy computer bag, staff pass and other bits ‘n’ pieces and the result is cumbersome, inelegant and undignified. It’s also totally human and refreshing to see him, and other figureheads, allowing themselves to be shown in this way. We don’t see as much of Obama as perhaps we would like, so we don’t get to know him in the same way. We do, however, get a much better understanding of the workings of The White House – Obama’s White House. This is no Fire And Fury, and very little of the current POTUS is on show.
This is probably the closest you’ll ever get to a real life The West Wing, except that there’s no invitations to “walk with me”: indeed, the corridors in the confined office space wouldn’t allow for it. And, despite the lingering thought that the scramble to get so much done before the president’s term is up could have been avoided to some extent, this is still a fascinating look inside the walls of The White House. Even more so when it’s seen as a double bill with The Post.
SEE ALSO: Read our review of The Post here
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.
Photos Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures