• ‘The Final Year’ (2017)

    We’ve all experienced that feeling of not having enough time left to get a series of jobs done, or hoping that we can complete something that we’ve started because we know it will make life better. But imagine how Barack Obama felt in 2016, as time ticked away until the end of his constitutionally-mandated second and final term as President. Curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, normalising relations between Cuba and the US, a super-power-backed war in Syria, the apparently endless bloodletting over domestic gun violence and the knotty problem of affordable healthcare at home all vied for attention in these last 12 months. His team, too, felt that pressure, and film-maker Greg Barker along with his own team were there to capture it in remarkable detail for this gripping and sobering documentary.

    A zippy beginning complete with split-screen, colour-toned titles evoking movies made in another time of political optimism and early scenes showing some of the featured participants forgetting their phones or getting clumsily caught on bag straps might set a tone of comic observation, but it soon becomes apparent that theirs is a business that is deadly serious. We follow the final year through the endless corridors (and car interiors, and airport runways, and office lobbies) of power and the eyes of three principals: Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, with occasional contributions from the latter’s boss, Susan Rice. POTUS himself appears often but speaks to Barker’s camera only sparingly, a device both pragmatic and effective.

    The film could have been titled ‘war and peace’, since those are the concerns that most often drive events. The Syrian disaster prompts Power to describe her time addressing it as “pained and fraught”, and her face sometimes confirms this; in one of several powerful moments Rhodes terms the Russian government’s presumed airstrike on an aid convoy there coupled with its repeated attempts to deny this “fucking sick”. Kerry, responding in the UN, is visibly angry as he berates the Russian delegation and suggests that diplomatic judgements must be based on facts, not fiction. Immense symbolism arises when Kerry, famously both a veteran and critic of the Vietnam War back in that optimistic age, visits Hanoi and Saigon and when Obama meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima peace memorial. Security is ever-present, from bomb-sniffing dogs working the seats within the United Nations chamber to the half-a-foot-thick doors of armour-plated limousines.

    Frustration at actions that can’t be countered and attitudes that should have been loom large. A US military response in Syria is deemed impossible thanks to the black stain of Iraq, a lack of consensus and the sheer complexity of the situation, whilst Rhodes’ contention that Russian president Vladimir Putin acts only for himself and not (even) for his country acquires a horrible prescience when media coverage of the pending Republican convention decision to elect a candidate throws up a certain burly New York property developer.

    As hinted, Barker is good on the daily slog of representing the most powerful country on earth. When a brief sequence shows the same view out of the window of another official plane alternately in sun, gloom and at night, the endless hours at 30,000 feet are fully felt. Arguments, disagreements, mistakes and regrets all make an appearance. But this is balanced by a kind of weary joy when things go right, such as the historic Cuba and Iranian agreements. We are never allowed to forget the risks in such efforts, either, as with a desperately ironic incident where a seven-year-old boy – about the same age as Power’s son – is accidentally knocked over and killed by a car from her motorcade during a negotiating trip to Africa.

    This is a very young team for the most part, we are reminded (Power is 45, Rhodes not even 40 when the election takes place), and one with the same concerns in rare off-duty moments as the rest of us. Power plays with and talks to her children, Rhodes retreats to a grim semi-furnished basement under the West Wing to seek quiet and walks home wearing a rucksack and with his own son on his shoulders.

    Feelings of another kind are on display in the most emotional portion of the film. The rangy, flame-haired Power makes a speech to a group of newly-sworn US citizens that begins as you would expect and adds a few words of thanks to her Hispanic nanny who is one of them. But it then takes a different turn, revealing Power’s own status as an immigrant to the country after a childhood in the Republic of Ireland and leading to some crying from her and others.

    There are tears, too, from President Obama when announcing yet more gun-enabled massacres throughout the year. Obama will of course be the main draw for many. Off-duty, insofar as that status is possible, he is relaxed, natural, humane and generous, as when joining in with a joke at Rhodes’s expense over the latter not getting to Stanford; “Me neither”, the President immediately adds. In the footage of him meeting and greeting, in carefully-assembled montages of stills, and on hearing that voice, his ‘official’ qualities are as obvious as they are lacking in his replacement. Rhodes may write much of those speeches as part of his job description, but it is his Commander in Chief’s message and the enthusiasm, sincerity and articulacy when delivering them drives the point home. Throughout the entire film, the establishment of a legacy is the clear goal of Obama and his team; the locking in of a range of agreements, initiatives and laws that hey believe will make a genuine and positive difference to the people of the USA and of the world. By the end of the film the looming threat of that replacement and his likely response to such effort ceases to loom and instead seems to smirk in our cast’s faces. That the year that followed only confirmed Donald Trump acting “like an ill-tempered child kicking over a stack of wooden bricks”, as reviewer Philip Kemp despairingly noted in his own review of Barker’s film, only makes one more depressed.

    Fortunately for this slice of reality at least Obama has the last word, and Barker frames it masterfully. Obama’s round of global diplomacy ends where the film does, in Greece. This is the literal home of democracy, and Obama demonstrates his clear understanding of the concept’s roots by stating that the most important office within that system is not the leader but the citizen. It is what one or many citizens can do with their lives, working within a wider community, that has always been his passion. Over a selection of images showing him at the Parthenon and at other historic locations round the world, including Petra, Jerusalem and Nepal, Obama talks of those places and the civilisations that made them as a chain of history. Each age has its own responsibility, he says, to ensure we leave something for the next. In other words, “we do our best,” Obama explains, “with the link in that chain that is handed to us.”

    The Final Year, A Dogwoof release with Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures for Home Box Office and directed by Greg Barker is on current release and is also available through a variety of platforms

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

L

Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread. Now available, 30-Second Paris is a must for any lover of the world's most visited city.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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