Synopsis: As Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza was an eyewitness to the unique and tremendous responsibilities of being the most powerful person on Earth. After leaving the White House, Souza transforms from a respected photojournalist to a searing commentator on the issues we face as a country and a people.
Stars: Pete Souza
Director: Dawn Porter
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Are we Facebook friends? If we are, you may have seen some posts of mine regarding our upcoming election and maybe we agree on things and maybe we haven’t. Perhaps you’ve put one of those angry face emoticons because you think I’m misinformed or are you one of those people who use the laughing icon ironically? Maybe you just like my posts and forget about it…or wait, you’ve just muted me until after the election, haven’t you? Remember, I’m not trying to change your mind…I’m just fact checking you. Something we all should be doing, no matter what candidate you support. Everyone needs to be responsible for telling the whole truth…and frankly that goes double for the candidate you are endorsing.
Like you, I’m ready for this election to be over with because it’s just dividing this country more and more. Family and friends are being pushed further apart and while I appreciate hearing other people’s viewpoints, it honestly just does me no good to know that people I have great respect for are voting against the rights of so many. It changes you, it just does. Watching the documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy a few weeks ago, I was angry about the abhorrent voter suppression that has gone on in this country and still permeates often unchallenged throughout cities today. Now having sat through The Way I See It, I find myself in a different state of grief…a grief for a country that has changed so much so quickly.
Photographer Pete Souza was a young photojournalist that wasn’t much of a political person when he was asked to apply for a job as the official White House photographer in 1983 during the Reagan administration. The one thing he did know before he started that job was that he wasn’t a fan of Reagan and while they may not have ultimately agreed politically Souza speaks in the early part of this new documentary about a respect that developed over time for the actor turned politician. Arguably the most famous Republican president (until recently) of all time, Reagan drew heat for his handling of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the Iran-Contra affair, not to mention his tax reforms that we are still feeling the chilling effects of today. What we see by way of hundreds of Souza pictures is a Reagan that was as personable and engaged out of the public eye as he was in front of the world. To hear Souza tell it, Reagan and his wife Nancy showed up for the country in ways he found great value in.
The bulk of The Way I See It, though, is comprised of the eight years Souza spent as the official White House photographer during the Obama administration. Starting to photograph him when he was a newly elected senator, Souza was there nearly every day with Obama, his family, and his staff as they traveled around the world representing the United States. The pictures he took were stunning but it’s the stories the pictures tell that are the immensely moving wonders to behold. Director Dawn Porter condenses Obama’s eight years in office to around 55 minutes of screen time and highlights the major events where Souza captured him at his most compassionate and naturalistic. By showing Souza’s involvement with two Presidents one the opposite side of the political spectrum, audiences get an idea of how much he’s seen during his career and come to understand that he can speak from experience when discussing the qualities that make up a strong Commander in Chief and an honorable leader.
I have to admit it’s hard to watch The Way I See It and not get choked up on a number of occasions. Even going back to the Reagan era, Porter provides so many reminders of the way the office of the President used to hold such honor, not just for the voters that elect the candidate into office, but for the person that takes on that crucial role. Say what you will about the causes championed by either Reagan or Obama (or any of the others that came in between them or before) when they held office but there’s historical evidence (not to mention pictorial) to show that these men took the job, and the American people seriously. Porter is surely taking aim at the current President but instead of making the focus squarely on him, she instead has historians and cultural critics describe the history of the office of the President and the qualities of what makes a great leader. It’s an intelligent way of exposing the current weaknesses of the administration without coming right out and saying it.
What it also does, however, is make the documentary feel off kilter and rambunctious. I never quite got the feel or overall theme of the piece One moment it’s focusing on Souza’s transition from a behind the scenes apolitical staff member to a public defender of the legacy of the Obama administration and, to a larger extent, human decorum. Then it changes angles to be about Souza’s tenure with Obama and about what he gleaned from his time with the 44th President of the United States. Finally, it seems to document Souza’s personal life from his upbringing to his wedding day, which is so special, I won’t spoil it here. I understand there’s a lot to say but I wish there was a bit more conscious editing to help it flow better from one part to another.
The current official White House photographer does not have the same access granted to Souza or others who have held the same position. Gone are the days where a photograph could be snapped catching the President, his staff, or his family in a candid instant of levity or finding a special behind the scenes moment where the country could see a human side to a group many find phony. Now, the role is relegated to a glorified photo op curator, coming in to get a heavily staged shot that Souza points out is often not presented in its true form. What was intended to capture the truth is apparently now another part of the machine of falsehoods and that’s unfortunate. Before the photographer was there to preserve a piece of history, now it’s there to proliferate propaganda.
This is an important documentary for all those interested in history and the upcoming election to see, although I can imagine the conservative right struggling to find the same inspirational goodness that I found in the meditation on past Presidents. As someone who respects government and the tenets on which it was created and as someone who held the office of the President in great regard, I was greatly moved by The Way I See It but also left a little hollowed out at the end too. It’s just another chilly reminder at how sallow our nation has become in the last four years.