the final year

review by Patrick O’Donoghue


The Final Year, directed by Greg Barker, is a documentary that details the whirlwind denouement in the Obama foreign policy team’s campaign to secure their diplomatic goals before it is too late. The film is notable for the intimate glimpse it offers the audience of its subjects’ personal lives as they struggle to balance the demands of their roles both as integral components of the American government, and as ordinary citizens with the same duties to friends and family as any of us. The Final Year fastidiously trails the political manoeuvrings of several protagonists; Samantha Power (Ambassador to the UN), Ben Rhodes (Advisor and Speechwriter), John Kerry (Secretary of State), and of course, Barack Obama himself.

Leaving one’s own political convictions aside, the documentary is both deeply engrossing and compelling as Obama’s team seeks to consolidate their foreign policy programme in the hope that it will be too robust to dismantle should an ill-disposed regime in the future sweep to power. The commitment, drive and zeal each protagonist exudes in working towards their objectives is infectious, causing us to involuntarily cheer on, blocking out the encroaching shroud of darkness growing with every step the villain of the film, Donald Trump, takes on his route to the White House.
However, despite my attempts to remain objective in viewing this film and leave my ideological perspectives at the door, I could not fail to recognise that the documentary itself could never be fully divorced from its aims as a meticulously crafted piece of Democratic Party propaganda. It is an inescapable fact that the film is essentially one lengthy, desperate attempt by the Obama government to assure itself a favourable legacy. In this sense, The Final Year will always be viewed as a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory and self-aggrandising effort to retrospectively construct a definitive narrative that will characterise the actions undertaken during the Obama era. History is written by those who possess its pen, and The Final Year endeavours to scrawl the Obama government’s obituary with flattery and praise before anybody has an opportunity to do otherwise.

There is an ostensible candour to the fly-on-the-wall nature of the film’s style, yet common sense tells us that this documentary could only ever be a partial illumination of the shady, clandestine corridors of power. A truly powerful, intrepid documentary maker would instead seek to uncover the uglier and more disconcerting secrets harboured by the White House and its staff but, alas, it is painfully evident that the director is, in fact, in thrall to his subject matter and complicit in the creation of this PR exercise. The movie’s score is irrefutably effective in manipulating the emotions of the audience, and I found it difficult not to be unthinkingly moved by the more tender, lachrymose scenes. The film is a masterclass in providing a sympathetic, humanising portrayal of political figures who, in many other scenarios, would inspire intense vitriol and contempt.

Yet, It is a melancholy truth that even the most fanatical acolyte of Barack Obama would have to concede that this hagiography cannot hide the fact that the “achievements’’ of this foreign policy team were, for the majority, tokenistic and superficial. The film largely consists of the various ambassadors going around and apologising for the barbaric crimes committed by former United States administrations in places like Laos, Vietnam and Japan. It also must be said that the silence throughout the film on the Palestinian issue and the unwavering support Obama continued to give to Israel is deafening. There is, in addition, a brief cameo made by the Saudi Arabian ambassador in which he is warmly embraced by Samantha Power. In a key moment, Obama states that foreign policy should be “rooted in moments of common humanity’’. However, this documentary will do little to assuage the opprobrium in which the United States is held by vast swathes of the international community.