Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Final Year - following the normal, clumsy people who led US foreign diplomacy under President Obama (QFT until 25 January)

Greg Barker followed senior Obama White House officials to document 44’s foreign policy manoeuvres in the last twelve months of his presidency. Over 90 minutes in The Final Year, audiences learn about the freedom Secretary of State John Kerry was given to pursue the agreed policy agenda; discover the manic travel schedule of deputy national security adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes as he writes draft speeches, leads negotiations in Cuba, and lives through the waves caused by a profile piece in The New York Times Magazine; and saw how US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power appreciated her role as an immigrant who now diplomatically represented the country her family moved to when she was just nine years old.

While Kerry is a consummate statesman, aware of the uncertain future results of his tentative negotiations, and interviews with President Obama add glitz, it is Power who is the most interesting subject. The Irish immigrant is free of the need to worry about Congress up on Capitol Hill and pushes to pursue a more ideological vision through the UN than her West Wing colleagues can stomach. She believes in getting out of New York UN building and visiting people in conflict situations in the field. Her hands on approach extends to taking the time to visit the family of a child killed by her convoy as it leaves a camp.
“You don’t want group think around the table”

The Final Year follows around normal, clumsy people who negotiate with their kids over breakfast as often as they foreign regimes. They are tying up the loose ends of decades of work. They are juggling values, interests, strategies and goals.

This is an administration that has learned some lessons from the past: military action in the Middle East has a history of making things worse. Climate change is as important as resolving the situation in Syria.

For a while The Final Year feels like a pro-Obama puff piece, a trumpet-blowing documentary celebrating successes in Cuba, Iran, Laos, Nigeria, Cameroon, Japan and even Greenland. Then it becomes apparent that the final actions of the administration are attempting to “[make] it harder to dismantle [our policies] should we take a different turn”. The policy approach has been to “resolve our differences peacefully” as “great power no longer fight wars”, and the next President for whom they’re nailing 44’s legacy to the wall is assumed to be Hillary Clinton.

Two thirds of the way through the film, Donald Trump becomes the Republican candidate. The mood of the election night party of women ambassadors at the UN tilts as states turn red and the expected narrative is torn up. Rhodes is literally speechless at the result in a scene that is probably better than any directed fictional moment of surprise in cinematic history. Suddenly Power's emotional speech at a citizenship ceremony has a new poignancy.

Perspective - perhaps Obama ‘hope’ - is offered too:
“History doesn't follow a straight line. It zigs and zags but the trend is to fight fewer wars and be more empathetic.”

The Final Year is a particularly stylish documentary with beautiful captions and takes full advantage of the presidential photograph library to illustrate events with well shot still images as well as the filmmaker’s own video footage. (Though it all becomes a bit hero-worshippy when you realise that the West Wing walls are also crowded with blown up photos of Obama in neat black frames.)

Trump supporters will appreciate the confirmation about just how many other countries into whose business the US was deliberately poking its nose while those still besotted with Obama will understand the cruel change of approach at the top of the US political tree. The rest of us will walk out of the cinema understanding a little more about how high level foreign policy is shaped and pursued, and realise that ordinary people make extraordinary decisions that affect the health and security of the world.

The Final Year is being screened in Queen's Film Theatre until Thursday 25 January.

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