Monday 15 January 2018

The end of the affair: "The Final Year"

To watch The Final Year, Greg Barker's fly-on-the-wall documentary account of the last twelve months of the Obama administration, is to wrestle with at least two issues. Firstly, it's simply impossible not to watch the film through the prism of What Came Next; secondly, you do begin to question the extent to which access - and Barker places us in the very heart of the West Wing, revealed here as a surprisingly poky, cockroach-blighted bunker - has been traded for an easier ride. With legacy in the forefront of everybody's mind, was it really such a good idea to let the cameras in? Or, conversely, was it an inspired one? This was, after all, the most media-savvy administration since the days of JFK, one that traded on fond memories of Aaron Sorkin's progressively minded The West Wing just as surely as the Kennedys once did the legend of Camelot, and embraced the Internet (and, specifically, social media) to spread its message in a way, say, the fuddy-duddy Dubya administration never got to grips with.

In an early sequence, President Obama can be seen telling a conference of young would-be business leaders that the one thing people are attracted to, above all else, is a story. Barker's film is itself a story of sorts, one that identifies its key characters - Secretary of State John Kerry, UN ambassador Samantha Power, speechwriter Ben Rhodes - in its opening moments, and its fraught timeline in its title. So what's this story telling us? Firstly, and as Kerry acknowledges when he notes "the clock is ticking", The Final Year is about how time (and how one manages it) may just be the most crucial element in politics: the Pres can be heard pointing out that, if the US had entered the conflict in Syria, as had seemed likely at one point during these twelve months, there would have been fewer opportunities to obtain the agreements this administration achieved in Paris, Iran and Cuba. (Brexiteers, take note.)

The year Barker documented began on a high, with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, before the President set out on what was effectively a farewell tour - stopping off in Vietnam, Hiroshima and Laos, attempting to heal the wounds left by his predecessors in office - while Kerry set off for Iceland, where he received a schooling in climate change not dissimilar to those seen in Al Gore's Inconvenient movies. New challenges present - Syria for one, Boko Haram for another - but increasingly, perhaps inevitably, the hugest shadow is cast by the campaigning Donald J. Trump, heightening and coarsening the political rhetoric on social media, where he who shouts loudest oft wins the day. Nobody could guess what was coming, save perhaps the disaffected white folks of the American heartlands, growing wary if not weary of this team's internationalism, fancy words and good intentions.

Of all the elements in The Final Year guaranteed to foster audience nostalgia for a moment only recently passed, foremost will be the Obama team's unwavering and unwaveringly sincere belief in the power of diplomacy - a belief borne out on screen by the success of the Iran deal. (Two sides, habitually at loggerheads, sit down around a table and agree some common ground: the past really can seem like another country.) Beyond the day-to-day reality it describes, Barker's film often plays like an extended treatise on the matter of words, and how words matter: it captures in passing a philosophical discussion between two staffers, worthy in its own way of a Sorkin (or Voltaire), over whether post-crash, pre-Trump America is going through a bad moment or - long view - the best time ever to be alive. Even in its more routine stretches, we find the policy wonks striving wherever possible to open up or extend a dialogue rather than, say, barking taunts or bending others to their will.

What the film is not, pointedly, is warts-and-all vérité, in the yellowing, Primary-era sense of the term. Clearly, there were levels of governance beyond Barker's clearance: yes, the filmmaker was allowed to go on recon, attend photo ops, and occasionally catch revealing moments of human interest - Old Man Kerry forgetting his phone, The Prez sliding into shots like The Fonz, dispensing sage, considered advice to all and sundry - but the film is at least a little sketchy on what's actually going on back in Washington while its key players are enjoying their last hurrahs. Crises - like Rhodes' frank interview with New York magazine - are hustled past, as politicos perhaps have to in order to remain sane (and employed), but only once, with the discussion of an alleged Russian air strike on a Syrian aid convoy, does The Final Year appear to gather material you feel its subjects wouldn't want on the public record.

If this containment strategy proves more limiting than illuminating overall, the film does, nevertheless, have the benefit of a profoundly dramatic closing section, as the night of November 8, 2016 brings about the crushing of all those hopes, dreams and ideals this team brought into office. Rhodes, for once, is left speechless; Power holds her young daughter in her arms, left wondering what the future holds for them both. If politics is the way we react to events, here you feel romance being eclipsed by realpolitik: after ninety minutes of watching a legacy being shored up and polished, we finally emerge into a brave new world, with a whole new administration that has spent its first year in office seeking to overturn what came before. The West Wing, famously, concluded on an upbeat note ("What are you thinking about?" "Tomorrow"), and those words may now be cast in an pessimistic light; but Rhodes, at least, provides a measure of cautious optimism: "Maybe there's a different happy ending." Even as they packed up and shipped out, this administration was clinging to an idea of hope.

The Final Year opens in selected cinemas from Friday.        

No comments:

Post a Comment