Director: Greg Barker
Cast: Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, Susan Rice, Barack Obama
Watch The Final Year online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
During the final year of President Obama’s presidency, director Greg Barker followed three members of the White House’s foreign policy team – Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to The United Nations Samantha Power, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes – as they cheerfully went about their business of making the world a better place, confident that at the end of the year, they would be handing everything over to Hillary Clinton.
As we now know all too well, that’s not what happened, and the knowledge of what’s coming casts a depressing pall over what was clearly intended as a celebratory lap of honour. In fact, it ends up transforming the film itself, not least because the little hints of what might be in store (Trump’s early TV appearances, his increasing dominance of the news agenda) are roundly dismissed by Rhodes whenever he’s asked about them. (At one point, Rhodes incredulously exclaims “They’re just talking about his Twitter feed” and you feel like shouting back: “Get used to it!”)
For a film that’s selling itself on being Obama’s final year, Barack himself doesn’t actually appear that much, which is a little disappointing, though the handful of moments when he does appear are undeniably powerful, particularly his historic speech at Hiroshima in 2016. It’s also fair to say that this is by no means a warts-and-all peek behind the scenes, despite the filmmakers trying very hard to give that impression. Basically, there are no flies on these walls and nothing in the film that gives even the slightest negative impression, other than the revelation that the White House has a mouse and cockroach problem. (Insert Trump joke here.)
That said, it’s genuinely inspiring to watch Kerry, Power and Rhodes do their jobs with such evident passion and empathy, whether it’s Kerry finding his own closure by normalising diplomatic relationships with Vietnam, or Power travelling to Africa in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls (one of several deeply moving sequences). Obama’s extraordinary influence resonates clearly through their actions, with more than one of them commenting that he inspires everyone around him to go out into the world and do good things.
As the end of the year approaches, with the election on the horizon, tensions escalate both for the people we’re watching on screen and the audience, as we brace ourselves for their inevitable reactions. Barker’s cameras are with both Power (who’s hosting an all-female victory party in anticipation of Clinton’s victory) and Rhodes as the results come in and the results are devastating to watch, with Rhodes, in particular, rendered speechless. After that, the misery just keeps on coming, as the very real threat that Trump could undo all their good work with the stroke of a pen begins to sink in. (Depressingly, that’s pretty much exactly what happened, at least in regards to the Paris climate deal and trading relations with Cuba.)
Ultimately, The Final Year never quite comes to terms with the way the rug of history gets so violently pulled out from under it at the end, and that, in itself, makes it worth seeing. Barker does manage to find a few notes of hope, not least from Power, who vows to keep on fighting the good fight, and a still shell-shocked Rhodes, who optimistically believes that the pendulum will eventually swing back again. Let’s hope he’s right.
The Final Year is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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