The Final Year


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Final Year
"At its best, this is a film that has something to say about democracy itself." | Photo: Courtesy of DOC NYC

With all the criticism surrounding the Trump regime at present (not least in Hollywood), it's tempting to look back on the final year of Barack Obama's presidency with rose tinted spectacles, but what was really going on in the White House at that time? How does any political regime cope with the approach of another so different, so much at odds with its core values? Greg Barker's documentary endeavours to find out.

At its best, this is a film that has something to say about democracy itself - at least the way it plays out in practice - and the absurdity of living under successive governments that spend half their time trying to undo one another's wok rather than building for the future just because, as Churchill noted, the alternatives are worse. At worst, it's a rather frantic and hasty attempt to make sense of fragments of narrative that nobody, including those directly involved, has had time to digest yet.

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Inevitably, it's a film of two halves. When shooting began, the White House team were pretty confident that Hillary Clinton would succeed Obama and everything would carry on much as it did before. When that confidence starts to weaken, the tone of the film changes. everybody is trying to work faster, harder, yet they're clearly struggling to concentrate. There's an underlying sense of panic. This even extends to aspects of the production. Although Barker has unprecedented access to key figures - and, sometimes more interestingly, to the lower level staff trying to turn policy into action - it's clear that a certain level of control has been exerted over what he does and doesn't get to see, and later scenes in the film seem significantly less stage managed.

Government is not the same as politics and the film is at its most interesting when concentrating on the former - after all, we've heard the speeches before. Even in these special circumstances, day to day work pressures exert themselves and staff try to juggle their commitment to the job with their private and family lives. Obama visits Hiroshima, Kerry discourses on global warming on a trip to Greenland, but children still need to talk to their parents and nobody is getting enough sleep.

Sometimes the obvious polish pushes this film a little too far into propaganda territory but for the most part the emotional aspects of what we see are real, and that's especially the case on the election night when hopes are dashed - some viewers will find this hard to watch. The gradual realisation that 'yes we can' needs an additional 'but it might take a while' is the closest the film gets to restoring the passion seen in earlier scenes, and Barker doesn't really seem to know what to do with this. It's clearly not the ending he expected. It has to be said, however, that had things gone to plan, the film would have been a lot less interesting.

Reviewed on: 13 Jan 2018
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The Final Year packshot
The final year of President Obama's foreign policy administration.
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Director: Greg Barker

Year: 2017

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: US

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