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17 January 2018updated 14 Sep 2021 2:33pm

The Final Year was meant to be an Obama love story. It turned into a horror show

The film-makers capturing Barack Obama’s last year in office were unprepared for a villain to turn up. 

By Ryan Gilbey

At the end of The Final Year, a new documentary shot over 90 days in 21 countries during the last 12 months of Barack Obama’s presidency, there is the sense of a gaping hole where even the mildest criticism or dissent might profitably have gone. The picture is a lovefest, plain and simple, and the tenor adopted by the filmmakers isn’t very much different to that of the Vietnamese student who says to the President during a question-and-answer session: “You are a great leader. How do we get to be great leaders like you?” Where, I wondered, was the argument that some of the precedents for Donald Trump’s outrages were established by Obama? As Mehdi Hasan put it in these pages last year, “the horrors of the Donald Trump era should not blind us to the myriad ways in which his Democratic predecessor helped lay the groundwork for it.”

But then filmmakers don’t get this level of access by threatening to cast aspersions on their subject’s track record or by saying, as Hasan did, “that 44 was an enabler for 45”. And this is certainly top-tier access, even if it also comes with a thick wedge of control: the camera cosies up with Obama and his team in limousines and on planes and backstage at public events, and in the West Wing amongst the rats and the giant cockroaches. (Literally – there is a dead cockroach behind the chair in one room, and aides talk about those long nights when they can hear the rats running around in the roof. A metaphorical interpretation is, of course, available to those of a hostile political disposition.) Obama gets his share of screen time but we hear mainly from Samantha Power, the former journalist and genocide expert who became US ambassador to the UN in the President’s second term, and Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, both of whom were part of his team before he was elected.

There are some illuminating moments – the scene in which Power, herself an Irish immigrant, breaks down while presiding over a naturalisation ceremony is among them – but the pickings are slim. Mostly this is a slick, safe toeing of the party line.

Thank heavens, then, for Trump. Without him, the film would be all spoonfuls of sugar and very little medicine to help it go down. His appearances may be few, but they are explosive. He first rears his head on a TV screen in the background, unnoticed or at least unacknowledged, when Obama and his team are on a trip to Laos to acknowledge the extent of the horror inflicted there by US forces during the Vietnam war. While there, a woman in a café asks Rhodes if he will continue working in the same capacity for the incoming president, simply transferring his services over to the next boss. I spluttered at that – how could anyone think that Rhodes, with his proclivities and sympathies, would be amenable to Trump, for goodness sake?

And then it hit me: no one thought that Trump was going to be the next president. The question was about Hillary Clinton.

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Sure enough, that’s the way Rhodes answers it.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I know Hillary Clinton and her team very well.”

“So you think Hillary Clinton will be elected?” the woman asks. “Not Donald Trump?”

He smiles knowingly and confidently.

“No,” he says. “No. No. I’m sure.” More smiles. Poor misguided woman. What is she thinking?

She presses on. “What happened in England, it’s sort of…” She’s talking about Brexit.

“That shows you anything can happen,” Rhodes concedes. But he’s still not budging on the Trump issue. He still doesn’t really believe. Who did?

Though scenes such as these are painful, they can only be good for the film. (It is also a rap on the knuckles for those now claiming they could see all along that Clinton was fighting a losing battle. This is the evidence which proves that not to be so.) Rhodes admitted as much in an interview with The Guardian this week. “Unfortunately, [the film is] probably better because of the ending,” he said. “It would have been a nice movie about people working hard on foreign policy, but it acquired this tragic sensibility. It’s a horror movie when you know the twist ending.”

It’s particularly instructive to witness the brouhaha which arises in the film when the New York Times runs a comprehensive profile of Rhodes that quotes him describing the US press corps as a bunch of 27 year olds who “literally know nothing.” In light of the insults that have since been fired off by the incoming administration, when any journalism not fawning in nature is denounced as “fake” and the press are sidelined and besmirched, Rhodes’s comments sound now like the equivalent of sexting. It must feel to the US press like a case of out of the frying pan, into the slow-motion-threshing-machine-in-which-you-retain-full-consciousness-as-you-are-torn-to-shreds.

The upset of election night may even be too prickly for this particular filmmaking team to handle. When 8 November 2016 swings around, and all is desolation and grief and gnashing of teeth (Rhodes, in particular, his at a loss for words), the picture can’t really accommodate the fall out. This is not what the director Greg Barker and his colleagues set out to make, so all they can do is contemplate the wreckage and wonder what went wrong, rather than take control of the narrative themselves and mould it into any kind of coherent lesson. Not a bad metaphor for the election itself if you ask me.

‘The Final Year’ is released on Friday.