There are many terrible things about Trump’s ascension to the presidency, which – despite the cries of those who say it was an ‘inevitable’ side effect of the rise in identity politics – still comes as a shock, a full year on from his inauguration. But one aspect of his rise to power which, while nowhere near as tragic as his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement or his attempts to gut health insurance coverage, will go on to have an impact in the future is the effect it has on the legacy of Barack Obama.
While the Obama years were marked by an increasing reliance on drone warfare and a war on whistleblowers, the arrival of Trump – crashing down like a bequiffed, luminously-orange meteor of trash – has smoothed out the potential for criticism. We now view Obama’s presidency as the halcyon days, when there was a president who was calm, eloquent, well, and cool. As a result, our view of his two terms as president does not allow room for nuance, a trap into which Greg Barker’s documentary The Final Year falls.
“The arrival of Trump – crashing down like a bequiffed orange meteor –has smoothed out potential for criticism of Obama”
Filmed over the last twelve months of Obama’s presidency, the film focuses on a few loyal staff members who formed the core of his foreign policy unit: US Ambassador to the UN,Samantha Power; Secretary of State John Kerry; White House staffer Ben Rhodes, who advised on the Iran Nuclear Deal; and – for brief periods – Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor. All are united in their wide-eyed belief that the Obama Doctrine on foreign policy has, or had, the potential to dispel the strong-man image of America on the world stage in favour of a kinder, gentler form of politics.
And thus we follow the team around the globe: Kerry attempting to heal the US’s relationship with Vietnam, drawing to a close a career that has seen him move from war hero to anti-war demonstrator to political giant; Power listening to Nigerian mothers whose daughters have been kidnapped by Boko Haram; Rhodes reflecting on the momentousness of the Iran Deal. We even have an interview with the president himself, although nothing truly valuable is revealed. This is the main issue with the film: any problems that might have existed during Obama’s presidency, or any internal tensions between members of the team are merely hinted at, is never revealed.
“While we have an interview with the former President, nothing truly valuable is revealed through it”
The last 20 minutes of the film are the most illuminating, as Trump moves from joke politician to legitimate candidate to president-elect – Powers watches the election night with other female UN ambassadors in one of the most affecting scenes in the film – but doesn’t tell us much more than the reaction these seasoned, intelligent professionals have to the thought of Trump in the White House: horror at the potential he has to undo their work.
Ultimately, The Final Year tells us very little about the Obama presidency, or the legacy it will leave. We are given a surface-level look at the lives of his staff, with real exploration eschewed in favour of a film that, at times, reads like a ‘greatest hits’ montage of a dying age of normality.
All too often, Barker sands down the edges of what could have been a fascinating film, veering instead into mere hagiography.
The Final Year
Dir: Grek Barker. Starring: Barack Obama; John Kerry; Samantha Power; Ben Rhodes. 89 minutes