tue 18/12/2018

The Final Year review - Greg Barker documents Obama's last year in office | reviews, news & interviews

The Final Year review - Greg Barker documents Obama's last year in office

The Final Year review - Greg Barker documents Obama's last year in office

Making the world a better place: the foreign policy team and what happened next

Through a glass darkly: Obama with John Kerry, Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes

"The Times They Are A-Changin'" has never sounded so menacing. The Brothers & Sisters’ gospel version accompanies the end credits of The Final Year documentary as we watch the stunned UN ambassador Samantha Power unpinning her son’s drawings from her office wall and moving out of the White House on the day before Trump’s inauguration.

It’s only towards this grisly end that director Greg Barker’s film gathers momentum. It starts with a promise of intimacy – Power getting her bouncy kids ready for school, secretary of state John Kerry forgetting his cell phone before he’s driven off in his black SUV – which isn’t fulfilled. We’re in for a sober, respectful ride with the foreign policy team, in a rush to get things done before time runs out, and POTUS’s presence is perfunctory (no jokes, no fun and games with Malia and Sasha, no Michelle).

Still, there are fine moments, made even more poignant when seen through the prism of 2018

This isn’t a Weiner-style warts and all, but, not surprisingly, a dignified celebration of diplomacy and engagement (remember them?) over the course of 90 days in 2016. It’s all about Power, Obama’s speechwriter and major foreign-policy shaper Ben Rhodes (his and Obama's minds have melded, he says), and Kerry, working on Syria, Yemen, Cuba, the Iran deal, the Paris climate accord – vastly important and now under threat of reversal, but not always gripping viewing. It feels like a bit of a PR job at times, though you can’t PR the election result away and the elephant in the room throughout is what’s happening back home.

Still, there are fine moments, made even more poignant when seen through the prism of 2018. Kerry makes a wonderful, fiery speech to the UN about the Russian denial of their bombing of a humanitarian aid convoy in Syria during the ceasefire – "Facts are stubborn things," he says. In retrospect, says Rhodes, it took them too long to separate Putin out from Russia. "Putin doesn’t pursue Russia’s interests, he pursues Putin’s interests." And Power is vigorously human. She tries, probably in vain, to get the Saudi ambassador interested in a virtual reality set-up of a Syrian refugee camp and is often close to tears on a trip to Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria when talking to mothers whose daughters have been taken by Boko Haram.

Power was a war correspondent before she joined Obama’s first presidential campaign (she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a monster in a Scotsman interview). "My son told me I was going to cry," she says, as she addresses a US citizenship ceremony and talks about being an Irish immigrant herself. Her nanny Maria is one of the participants and they hug fervently afterwards. "The ability to shape America is now your right and we’re counting on you to exercise it," she says. There’s that elephant in the room again. In fact, almost everything is imbued with it: you see the charming photograph of the little boy touching Obama’s hair, for example, and you find yourself comparing that elegant head with the orange monstrosity.The Final YearIt’s Ben Rhodes (pictured above, with Obama) – he was a creative writing student at NYU and an aspiring novelist before 9/11 convinced him to enter politics – who seems most impervious to the Trump threat, perhaps because he's so entwined with the president. "I’ve just been operating under the assumption that she’s going to win," he says, as he locks himself away in a remote office (and there are cockroaches and rats – real ones – at the White House. What does the germophobic leader make of that?) to compose another speech. There’s no doubt that they’re splendid speeches: Obama’s Hiroshima address at the Peace Memorial, the historic visit to Laos, his eloquence in Greece on the last presidential trip. Which makes Rhodes’s speechlessness after Trump’s win even more dramatic. "I can’t even…I mean I can’t…I don’t know what the words are."

Later, he tries for an optimistic note, talking about the pendulum swinging back and how they have the template ready for when that happens. Maybe. But, in the words of Dylan, "Don’t speak too soon/For the wheel’s still in spin/And there's no telling who that it's naming." Still, the audacity of hope remains.

We’re in for a sober, respectful ride with the foreign policy team and POTUS's presence is perfunctory

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

"...and you find yourself comparing that elegant head with the orange monstrosity." Can some editor please explain to Robson-Scott what is and is not appropriate in a film review?

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters