The Final Year review: documentary about Barack Obama full of spin

Obama gave the filmmakers ‘unprecedented’ access. They made a weak documentary

Barack Obama and Samantha Power in 'The Final Year'

Film Title: The Final Year

Director: Greg Barker

Starring: John Kerry, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 89 min

Thu, Jan 18, 2018, 10:02


Say what you will about the recent vogue for Obama hagiography, but at least Barry and Southside with You had coherent three-act structure in their favour. The Final Year is pitched as “a unique insiders’ account of president Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office” so, in theory, it’s a sunny look back to those halcyon days when relations with shithole countries were less volatile.

Unhappily, the “unprecedented access” afforded Greg Barker’s often rudderless documentary largely consists of spin, pillow shots and political humblebragging. If you’re hoping for Obama’s very own West Wing spin-off, you’ll soon be disappointed. The fly-on-the-wall has seldom looked so well groomed. The 44th president is rarely on screen and when he is it’s either in the medium of still photographs or firing off a quick recap from whatever press conference he has just hosted.

It falls to his staff – particularly deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, Irish-born US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and secretary of state John Kerry – to fill the screen.

They all rush about. To what end, exactly?

We certainly don’t get as far as any “hot” debates in the inner-sanctum. Too often, we could just as easily be viewing a corporation gearing up to launch a new flavour of baked beans. There’s some chatter about a legacy that might, at a later date, be undone by a pen stroke. That may be true for the Paris climate-change accord and the US opening to Cuba. But there are missteps here that are conveniently glossed over.

There are certainly no tricky questions about drone strikes and civilian casualties. Aung San Suu Kyi is glimpsed in a montage of triumphant meet-and-greets; nobody recalls that as soon as Obama lifted sanctions against Burma in 2016, the country’s military began their persecution of the Rohingya.

When Rhodes in embroiled in a minor scandal, having boasted about manipulating the press, the matter is swiftly dropped, as if it would ungallant to document such a thing in a documentary. A shot of Rhodes fumbling with a backpack and a few warm moments with Power’s family are the only scenes that veer toward the personal.

Rather bafflingly, the 2016 election is glimpsed just twice in the background; its outcome is a bombshell for Obama’s staff and the film, which suddenly and visibly can’t figure out how to end. With one of the carefully stage managed “off-the-cuff” scenes? With some nice-sounding, carefully-worded rhetoric?

Remember the excruciating TMI of the terrific 2016 chronicle Weiner? This is precisely the opposite. Don’t expect Fire and Fury: A Prequel.