The Final Year (2018)

The Final Year is a fascinating documentary by Greg Barker that’s almost Shakespearean in the rise and fall of its central characters, Barack Obama and his team. It’s both fabulous post-PR for his presidency and, with hindsight, an incredibly poignant memento of what we have lost.


by Alexa Dalby

The Final Year

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Though behind the scenes, it’s never really the warts-and-all that that implies. The Final Year is a fascinating – yet somehow also glossy – insight into the unseen workings of US diplomacy in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

POTUS and his foreign affairs team seem to have perfected the art of appearing completely relaxed and natural while observed by a film crew – and yet they seem so driven by their good intentions that they convince us as being genuinely so. They are always “on”, always giving their all. The private face is just another facet of the publicly approved one.

In their multiple diplomatic missions to far-flung parts the world, they bestride the globe like the superheroes of the Justice League of America, united by a belief in common humanity and a desire to make the world better: Obama, as ever lithe and coolly rational and self-deprecating; his hard-working national security adviser and speechwriter Ben Rhodes; Secretary of State John Kerry tirelessly plugging away; and driven Samantha Power, journalist, analyst and vibrant speaker. As an Irish immigrant herself, she presides movingly over a naturalisation ceremony.

What they are portrayed as pushing is international diplomacy in a way not currently undertaken by the US. It’s a long-term strategy central to the presidency, with Obama positioned as a global leader and our best hope of peace. It seems to be propelling the team hopefully forwards into the future until… until, part way through, elections loom and Trump is nominated. There are poignant hints of foreboding. Will the next administration try to reverse the changes that they have made? It’s prescient – and we know all too well now, that’s the current incumbent’s stated mission.

Even so, preparations continue to be made to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory. When the results come through, their devastation is palpable, they literally can’t speak. The planned celebration party turns into a truncated wake. Swiftly making way for the next administration, the team disperses, Samantha Power to academia and the others back, exhausted, to the rest of their lives. History doesn’t follow straight lines, Obama philosophises, and that’s all the consolation we are left with. We just have to hope the pendulum, as Rhodes says, swings back.

The Final Year is released on 19 January 2018 in the UK.

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