The Final Year

Sarah Ward

Exploring the last twelve months of the Obama administration, this observational documentary presents rather than probes.
The Final Year

In any given moment, it’s easy to overlook the events that came before. In the current American political climate, amidst the deluge of chaos that has characterised the past twelve months, it’s easy to forget the lightning bolt of hope that arrived eight years earlier. Chronicling the foreign policy activities undertaken by the Obama administration as his presidency came to an end, The Final Year provides a reminder. Documentarian Greg Barker (Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden) quietly celebrates as much as he observes, following Obama’s team as they endeavour to make an impact around the world.

Among them, in their 2016 roles: Obama himself, not only illustrating his public oratory skills but speaking candidly behind the scenes; Secretary of State John Kerry, representing the U.S.’s interests in Iran, Syria and elsewhere; U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, flitting between her life in New York with her travels abroad; and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who provides much of the movie’s to-camera commentary. They’re each engaged and impassioned as the film follows their exploits across the globe, hopping from speeches in Hiroshima and meetings in Nigeria to conversations about Trump in Laos and tours of melting ice in Greenland.

Indeed, as January 2017 inches closer, The Final Year paints a picture of enthusiasm and perseverance, with its central players driven in their jobs and hopeful of creating lasting change. Wins are scored and mistakes made, tough negotiations are stressed over and political realities sometimes prove harsh, but dedication and determination reign supreme. And yet, the expected shadow looms, giving the feature a sombre undertone. Whether mentioned by name in conversations, in election night coverage or ultimately seen sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office, today’s president is inescapable; though referenced and sighted sparingly, the starkly different way of thinking he has since ushered in unsurprisingly dulls the documentary’s glow.

Barker knows this, of course. After packing his film with evidence of Obama’s team in action, he can only end it with their solemnity about the future to come. In doing so, he demonstrates the access and intimacy that helps The Final Year resound with viewers — beyond its snapshot of another time, presidency and agenda, that is. Accordingly, for followers of American politics that double as fans of television series The West Wing, on offer is a real-life look at inner-workings typically only seen in fictionalised renderings, and the accompanying real-life reactions as well. In more collected moments, Kerry emphasises the importance of their task, the stakes and the need to impart this to their successors. In less composed moments, Rhodes stares in disbelief, unable to voice his response on November 8, 2016.

Depiction — even at close quarters — isn’t the same as interrogation, however. Filmed in 90 days in 21 countries, The Final Year presents rather than probes, letting its subjects and the contrast between them and today’s state of affairs do the talking. It’s an appropriate choice for a fly-on-the-wall-type effort, though it’s one that can ring hollow. So too does the contrast between Barker’s visual choices, with cinematographers Martina Radwan (The Family I Had) and Erich Roland (He Named Me Malala) hewing to aesthetically unremarkable convention, and the sentiment laden on by Philip Sheppard’s (Legion of Brothers) score. One shows, the other doesn’t just tell — it over-enunciates every feeling, and unnecessarily given the circumstances.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

The Final Year
Director: Greg Barker
USA, 2017, 89 mins

Release date: 19 January 2018
Distributor: Madman
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay