Aired at HOME MCR, the on-the-fly documentary The Final Year, directed by Greg Barker, provides us with an unprecedentedly intimate insider’s look at the inner workings of the Obama administration in its last months; the not-so-distant past that gave way to the new Trump-era. In 2008, when the exhilarating news broke that Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th US president with a convincing victory, he made headlines as the first ever African-American POTUS. The world looked to him to restore the US economy amidst the global financial crisis and to redefine a fractured and troubled America. Obama’s two terms in office were eventful, to say the least. His eight years as president witnessed rounds of quantitative easing, his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Occupy Wall Street protests, the Arab Spring, the rise to prominence of the Daesh and Boko Haram, growing racial tensions in the US, an increasingly rising China and the historic rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
Future generations will judge Obama’s political legacy and decide his place in US history. There is, however, little doubt that when he left office (noticeably more pensive and with grey hair) the America that Donald Trump became president of had never been more divided along ideological, class, and racial lines. This makes it all the more fascinating, in The Final Year, to get a closer look at the people who made up the Obama administration in that remarkable year of transition.
The documentary gives the audience unprecedented access to the White House and State Departments, and centres on the foreign policy team picked by Obama: Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Deputy National Security Advisor and speech writer Ben Rhodes as well as the National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Obama himself. The film tracks this team, covering the period from January 2016 all the way to January 2017. The Final Year tracks how the men and women essential to the Obama administration travelled the world in an often desperate bid to ‘lock in’ their policies, solidify the administration’s legacy, and tie up loose ends. Tying up those loose ends, as The Final Year shows, was doomed to be challenged (if not completely repealed) when power was handed to Trump who was, and is, hellbent on undoing everything this administration had attempted to institute and preserve.
As reflexively congratulatory as the documentary may be at some times, in its repeated focus on diplomacy, engagement, and citizenry it does crystallise the ideas that were fundamental to, and championed by, Obama. The documentary’s central figures often speak directly to the camera and make impassioned cases for the importance of diplomacy in world affairs regardless of the possibility of military ‘solutions’. The documentary tells a fascinating story about the major players in the Obama administration and there was no denying the sense of gaining access to a world that would otherwise have remained behind closed doors. Some of this is simply the human dimension: Ben Rhodes’ habit of putting his feet up when he thinks, last minute speech writing, and the sudden presence of Trump’s twitter feed, even then, in a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Obama.
The documentary — 1h 29min in length — ends on a slightly sombre note as Republican Donald Trump ‘trumped’ Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, much to the chagrin and detriment of the Obama team. The otherwise articulate Ben Rhodes was speechless. The Final Year is fast-paced, illuminating and engaging at every turn and closes on Obama’s team moving out of their offices and Obama’s somewhat haunting remark that ‘History really doesn’t follow a straight line. It zigs and zags’. He was certainly right.
by James Chonglong Gu