BFI #LFF 2017: THE FINAL YEAR Film Review

John Kerry, Barack Obama, and Samantha Power in The Final Year (2017)

Rich, tense and documented with extraordinary intimacy, THE FINAL YEAR offers a unique insight into Barack Obama’s final year in office

It’s hard not to watch Greg Barker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about Barack Obama’s final year in office without feeling a twinge of nostalgia. Since Donald Trump took office, the President has backed out of the Paris climate accord, decimated the State Department and reintroduced a trade embargo against Cuba – and that’s just in his first 100 days. Yet when Barker and his team first set out to film THE FINAL YEAR, they imagined a very different ending.

Shot over 90 days in 21 countries, THE FINAL YEAR follows President Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office as they work to cement international relations. The observational documentary follows four key figures – Secretary of State John Kerry; United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and Barack Obama himself – as they complete a reel of diplomatic missions in an attempt to secure their legacy ahead of the looming election.

Rich, tense and documented with extraordinary intimacy, THE FINAL YEAR offers a unique insight into the mechanisms of politics and international relations. Barker and his team were given unprecedented access inside the White House, following Obama and his team as they dealt with foreign policy issues from climate change to trade relations. The film shows how difficult foreign relations really are, with the team talking candidly in front of the camera about the implications of their choices and the frustrations of their limits.

Barack Obama and Samantha Power in The Final Year (2017)

Yet try as it might, the film can’t spin its way out of despair with the unscripted ending ultimately playing out like a tragedy. During the early days of shooting, it’s clear that the team were confident that Hillary Clinton will win, with Obama idealistic talking of “passing the baton” to a team that will “continue that agenda”. But Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the 2016 presidential election casts the film in a different light, exposing the fragility of policies and agreements that can be upended with the stroke of a pen. In fact, since his election, nearly all Obama’s accomplishments have been struck down by the new President, adding a splash of cold water to a story that no one intended to tell.

Despite their missteps, particularly around Syria, there is also a promotional quality to the documentary which flattens out any political drama. While it’s clear that the Obama administration made a great many achievements during their eight years in office, THE FINAL YEAR tends to skimp over some of the more controversial topics and portray POTUS 44 through rose-coloured glasses.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating peek into how American politics work and despite the unscripted ending, Barker manages to find an upbeat note to end on, with Rhodes insisting that “the pendulum will swing back”.

3.5 out of 5 stars

THE FINAL YEAR screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 8 October 2017.