The Final Year




American politics as they were in the year before Trump became President.

Final Year, The


The title of this documentary refers to 2016 and accordingly to Barack Obama's last year as President of the United States. During this period filmmaker Greg Barker was given access to the White House and his film shows events in chronological order. Although Obama's own contributions are not limited to his public appearances, the main emphasis here is on three of his supporters who had key roles in his administration: John Kerry, the Secretary of State; Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications; Samantha Power, the UN ambassador, who, originally from Ireland, is the most striking presence here. 


As this line-up indicates, had this film been made when Obama could have stood for re-election it would have been seen as a promotional piece. Save for disputes centred on Syria and a late indication by Power that she thought that Obama was ultimately striking too optimistic a note about the state of the world in some of his speeches, the only criticisms acknowledged here come briefly from unidentified voices off. In point of fact, the most interesting film on Obama's presidency that might have appeared now would probably be one asking to what extent disappointments expressed about Obama's shortcomings in his second term were indeed justified.


If it's clear that The Final Year is not that film, it is less certain what it is. Obama's determination to reach out to other countries through a foreign policy designed to that very end is undoubtedly a central focus with coverage of many visits abroad by the three commentators and by Obama himself. Even so, for the film's first hour what is included seems rather arbitrary and only the last third coheres strongly (that's because the issue of Syria becomes increasingly crucial and intense and because it features the unexpected but building threat represented by the possibility of Donald Trump being elected). Sympathetic glimpses, however brief, of the family lives of Power, Kerry and Rhodes seem rather beside the point but are included nevertheless.


Watchable as it is, The Final Year only achieves a clear sense of purpose later on. It may not be promotional as regards Obama himself, but one does come to recognise it as a work promoting the desirability of any administration in power being humanitarian in outlook. As such it invites the viewer to make his or her own comparison between what we see here and what is now in place under President Trump. At its close, the film tries to be optimistic about the change referring to Obama's impact on a younger generation yet to come to the fore and suggesting that history is full of zigs and zags. But, if it's a case of the pendulum having swung one way, we may well wonder how long this particular zag will last. When over the end credits we hear the song ‘The Times They Are a-Changin'’, we are more likely to think about the extent to which the times have changed already than to feel any great hope for the future.




Featuring  John Kerry, Samantha Power, Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice.


Dir Greg Barker, Pro Julie Goldman, John Battsek and Greg Barker, Ph Erich Roland and Martina Radwan, Ed Joshua Altman and Langdon Page, Music Philip Sheppard.


Passion Pictures/Motto Pictures/Magnolia Pictures/HBO Documentary Films-Dogwoof.
89 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 19 January 2018. Cert. 12A.