At first, it isn’t clear what this documentary, “The Final Year,” is about. We see a mother rushing around in a posh apartment, getting read to leave. Someone needs a bagel. You might not know this woman, but she and three others this documentary focuses on are the people who helped bring Barack Obama to the White House. Before the title flashes on the screen, we go from Obama’s rise to prominence and are quickly introduced to the people we’ll be following and how they came to join Obama’s team and to Obama’s time in the White House, including his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama tells us, “People of the world, this is our time” and that “we’re going to change the world.” Of course, in 2018, with Trump’s intense focus on dismantling Obama’s legacy, one has to pause and wonder if this wasn’t the real Camelot.
The mother in the opening scene is the Irish-born Samantha Power. A phone call from Obama lured her away from academia. She had already won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book: “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” something that she discussed with the then-senator Obama in that fateful first phone call. Power became Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilater Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council (Jan. 2009 to Feb. 2013). She would later serve as Ambassador to the United Nations, 5 August 2013 to 20 January 2017.
Perhaps the most familiar face is John Kerry, once a senator from Massachusetts, who recalls inviting Obama to speak for him when he was a 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry, who was also recently featured in the 10-episode documentary “The Vietnam War,” goes on to become Chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2009-2013), the 68th Secretary of State (2013-2017).
A less familiar face is Ben Rhodes who was under Obama became a Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and an advisor on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. His official title was Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting and he was Obama’s speechwriter on foreign policy from 2007 to the end of the final year.
Lastly, Susan Rice was the United States National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2017. Rice was also on the staff of the National Security Council and had previously served as an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during President Bill Clinton’s second term. Rice was UN ambassador.
Director Greg Barker has unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Obama White House, barring classified or top secret meetings. What we get is a top notch home movie of one of the most famous residences in the US–there’s some shaky cam and some light flaring. That’s annoying, but seems to indicate the lack of pretense and premeditation of the footage.
How you interpret much of this might depend upon your political affiliation. Being neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I waxed nostalgic for a president who spoke in full sentences, appreciated the meaning of words and seemed like the father everyone always wanted.
During his last year, Obama did a lot of traveling and one might wonder if that was wise. That’s explained at the end. Barker does allow us to witness the rising threat of Trump, at first in the background and then, the shock when Trump wins. You can’t help but wonder what the first year of the Trump administration might look like behind the scenes.
Obama was a historic first. That’s something that Trump can’t change. Yet we’re too close to this part of history at this point. Perhaps in 20 to 30 years, we’ll have some hint of the historic view.
Barker allows Obama the last words. Obama’s backstage and he notes somberly, “I think of all the young people who I’ve met around the world…imagine what kind of amazing revolutions for good they can inspire…the laws they are going to pass. That’s not the side of foreign policy that attracts attention, but may ultimately be the thing that has the most impact.” He then adds, “See you guys.”
At that point, no one knew what Trumpland would be like and that Obama would fall silent during a well-earned extended vacation. “The Final Year” could have been edited for a better pace, but it’s still an amazing behind-the-scenes look. The documentary premiered in September 2017 at the Toronto Film Festival and premieres in the US on 19 January 2018. A definite must-see for fans of documentaries, fans of Obama and people interested in American politics.