Film

The Final Year, review – the adulatory Obama doc that didn't see Trump coming

With the spectre of his absolute nemesis on the horizon, this documentary about the final year of Obama’s administration plays out like an accidental disaster movie

One of the most entertaining political documentaries of recent times is Weiner. In 2013 leading Democrat Anthony Weiner let a couple of filmmakers follow his efforts to get elected mayor of New York. Politicians aren’t immune to vanity, and presumably Weiner banked on some friendly coverage from this documentary crew. Instead Weiner got caught up in a sexting scandal, and the filmmakers were there, to chronicle the campaign in meltdown in all its intimate detail. It’s an excruciating spectacle: the story Weiner so assiduously tried to manage spins out of control, and the film impresses not as the record of one man’s triumph but his sorry political obituary.

The Final Year is a chronicle of the last 12 months of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team. All credit to director Greg Barker for securing behind-the-scenes access to the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry as they jet across the globe in a frenzy of diplomacy, but you sense the White House kept him on a tight rein. This is no Weiner.

Sure, you get a vivid feel for the atmosphere of the White House in the months and weeks leading up to Obama’s departure. There is an unholy rush to secure his foreign policy achievement legacy before leaving office: I lost count of the shots of people walking purposefully along White House corridors, like the cast in a season finale to The West Wing.

Barker has allowed himself to get caught up in the excitement. At one point we follow Kerry to the melting ice caps off the coast of Greenland, and he talks about global warming. It’s hard to disagree with any of it, but still it felt like a photo op engineered by the Obama administration.

The election of someone who opposes almost everything Obama’s team stands for does lend the film an injection of dark urgency

Elsewhere Obama fields questions from an audience of handpicked students in Vietnam. “You are a very great leader… Do you have any advice on how we can be great like you?” a young man asks him. Obama greets the questions with sly self-deprecation, but the attitude the film adopts is almost as adulatory. The image here is of an administration working towards a greater good, staffed by men and women powered only by conviction and Coke Zero. It’s commendable, but makes for bland cinema.

Except there is a cruel, terrible and utterly compelling final act to the movie that might be summed up in one word. Trump. The election of someone who opposes almost everything Obama’s team stands for does lend the film an injection of dark urgency.

The Final Year, in these terms, is a kind of disaster movie, the chronicle of an impending catastrophe that creeps up on its victims. Hindsight gives the fleeting clips of Trump on the campaign trail an ominous tenor. And it turns the refusal by Obama’s people to countenance his victory as a piece of magical thinking: “I never really considered that he has any opportunity to win the election,” is speechwriter Ben Rhodes’ answer. And it’s Rhodes who provides the film’s most eloquent response to the Trump victory. Sitting outside a party function in the aftermath of the defeat of election night, he struggles to say anything at all, except, after a long, terribly absorbing pause. Like Weiner, the story has run away from him: “I can’t put it into words,” he says.

The Final Year is in cinemas now

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