With the greatest retrospect…
In a new documentary, President Obama’s last few months in office take dramatic turns — as well we know
Dramatic irony is defined as that which arises when the audience of a play knows more about the circumstances of the characters than the characters themselves. For example, Oedipus doesn’t know his girlfriend is also his mum, but we do. It’s that kind of irony you see in Greg Barker’s new documentary, The Final
Year, as you watch Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, answering a woman in a café in Laos who asks him if he will work with the next president.
“I don’t think so,” he begins. “I know Hillary Clinton and her team very well. I could do something…” She interrupts him. “So you’re saying Hillary Clinton will be selected? Not Donald Trump?” “No,” he replies. Someone out of shot asks him if he’s sure. “I’m sure,” he says, with a slow blink and a smile.
Barker, whose previous documentaries include 2013’s Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, no doubt thought he would be making a very different kind of film. With illuminating, albeit limited, access, it follows some of Obama’s key staffers — Rhodes, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry — as they travel the world constructing a stately sign-off for their boss to cement the legacy of a president who could, by his supporters, be considered to have done a good job. There’s the Iran nuclear deal, attempts at a negotiated peace in Syria, plus steps to combat Boko Haram in Africa, and confronting climate change.
The film most effectively humanises ordinary people in extraordinary roles, particularly Power and Rhodes, as well as giving some literal glimpses of life at the White House — the West Wing, it turns out, is a bit shabby — though don’t expect lots of intimate sit-downs with Obama himself as Barker clearly didn’t get much on that front. Anyone expecting an exposé of dark-dealing Democrats will also be disappointed; there are times when the staffers seem too saintly and self-composed to be true, though when Rhodes hears the Russians have bombed an aid convoy near Aleppo, he finally lets rip: “This is fucking sick, even by their standards.”
But as they work, there’s Trump, looming like a crocodile eyeing a string of sausages, and it’s all you can do not to shout at the screen, “He’s behind you!” When he delivers the killer election blow, the last months of the Obama Government, and the hastily revised focus of the film, become not a victory lap, but a desperate scrabble to secure something, anything, before the new administration starts undoing it all.
— The Final Year is out on 19 January
The last period of Barack Obama’s US presidential term is played out in The Final Year