The Final Year Review
World politics can be described using many words right now, but “boring” certainly isn’t one of them. After years of stories on policy being largely relegated out of the headlines, Donald Trump’s Presidency has singlehandedly brought not just a nation, but an entire planet to analyse each piece of wrong-headed legislation in his omnishambles of an administration. He may have so far failed to “Make America Great Again”, but he’s made America care about politics again - albeit in a way that nobody on his team would have attempted.
As Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury lifts the lid on the inner malfunctioning of an already crumbling Presidency, Greg Barker’s HBO documentary The Final Year takes us back to a time in the not so distant past where politics was boring. Yes kids, there was a time when the people in charge of America’s foreign policy team were extremely capable of achieving positive diplomatic goals, and expressing empathy to those from less than fortunate backgrounds the world over.
Documenting the titular final year of Barack Obama’s Presidency through his foreign policy team only goes to show that, while the world was growing transfixed by Donald Trump’s reckless Presidential campaign, Obama’s team were pushing forward with a series of progressive policies- ones that I’d wager the majority of people didn’t know had been legislated until Trump aimed to instantly reverse them.
If you were watching from a partisan perspective on the political right, you could accurately accuse Barker’s documentary of being a hagiography to the former President and his wealth of accomplishments on the world stage. It is true that the film is less than critical (this is no Michael Wolff style exposé), but there are multiple moments where it shows the President’s team are caught up in a bubble, unaware of the divisive nature Trump’s campaign is sowing on the nation’s streets.
Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes is seen speaking to officials and members of the public in Laos all but reassuring them that the USA won’t elect Donald Trump, even as they bring up the topic of Brexit to counter his assurance. Naturally, an election night party in the White House turns depressing fast, with the party’s feminist theme as cringeworthy as anything you’d expect in Veep - only without the laughs. Obama’s team don’t come out of the film badly; they are responsible for foreign affairs, so their lack of preparation for a domestic event is understandable. But it is a useful shorthand as to just how unprepared the Washington establishment was for the populist uprising that led to Trump’s election.
Yet, throughout the film, I was left wishing that politics could still be this boring. It’s easy to argue, especially after watching The Final Year, that Trump could so easily tap into a feeling of discontent largely because Obama’s administration wasn’t achieving goals interesting enough to make the nightly news. The significant foreign policy achievements made during his second term displayed here, from the Iran Nuclear Deal to the Paris Climate Agreement, are proudly displayed in a grim bit of foreshadowing- unbeknownst to the government of the time that they’d soon be reversed without a second thought. It’s hard to imagine the average American citizen knowing or caring about these developments, and when Obama makes claims suggesting the world is safer now than ever before, it’s easy to juxtapose that with the items that have made the news - excessive footage of terrorism that depicts the global threat as far greater than it actually is. The world he aimed to create was devoid of dramatic conflict, which is not a good thing for TV ratings.