In these dystopian times, anyone who yearns for the Obama years — and who doesn’t? — may find some solace in the stirring documentary about White House photographer Pete Souza, The Way I See It. The film will have virtual festival screenings before a release by Focus Features this month. Director Dawn Porter, who also made the recent doc John Lewis: Good Trouble, packs a one-two punch with these compelling political films.
Souza actually has something of a two-party history. He was also official photographer during the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He admits in the film that he was no great fan of Reagan, but he developed some affection for the president and especially came to respect his relationship with wife Nancy. It was Nancy who later asked Souza to photograph Reagan’s funeral. Souza also caught some of the darker moments in Reagan’s presidency, especially an agonized photo taken during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal.
After leaving the White House in 1989, Souza became a newspaper photojournalist, and he was in Afghanistan after 9/11. But Obama’s rise in 2004 drew him back to political portraiture, and he was close to the president during all eight years of Obama’s tenure. Souza also took a few pictures of Trump and Obama together after the 2016 election, but his increasingly appalled reaction to Obama’s successor led Souza to take a fierce political stance that he had avoided for most of his career. The result was two best-selling books, one a collection of photos that he had taken during the Obama years, and a second called Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, which juxtaposed pictures of Obama with virulent tweets posted by Trump between 2016 and 2018. The latter book grew out of Instagram posts that Souza began to create; he eventually attracted more than two million followers for his visual responses to Trump’s savage tweets. And in recent years, he has denounced Trump on lecture tours.
But most of the documentary is composed of his elegant work inside the White House, including such dramatic moments as the war room meetings during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the agony that followed the Sandy Hook school shootings of 2012. The visual record of Obama’s response to that tragedy provides an unstated but terse indictment of his successor’s lack of empathy after several horrendous massacres.
There are also lighter moments that the film chronicles, including a family snowball fight on the White House lawn and the joy that followed the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Although pictures speak louder than words, Porter has enlisted several insiders to comment on Souza’s work, including the photographer’s wife, mother and sisters. A larger perspective is provided by people like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Obama diplomats Susan Rice and Samantha Power. One of the most moving interviewees is with David Wheeler, the father of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook. But one minor failing of the film is that it identifies most of the speakers only once, and by the end, some of the less familiar faces really need to be identified again.
A more significant failing is the film’s rather superficial treatment of Souza’s personal life. Granted, the main focus is on the presidents he photographed, but we would like more pointed insight into the personal history that led him on his fascinating career path. For example, his wife Patti is identified early in the film, but it is not until much later that we learn they did not marry until many years after they met. In fact, it was Obama’s prodding that finally led them to tie the knot at the White House. That scene is affecting, but we crave a little more insight into what prompted Souza’s decision.
It is probably the case that in order to gain cooperation, Porter had to steer clear of intimate details and let the subject lay down the ground rules. The greatest documentaries cut deeper and more unflinchingly. But if The Way I See It sometimes skims along the surface, the potent images of a truly gifted president in action offer a welcome journey back to a more hopeful era.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Events)
Focus Features, MSNBC Films
Director: Dawn Porter
Producers: Dawn Porter, Evan Hayes, Laura Dern, Jayme Lemons
Executive producer: Justin V. Barocas
Directors of photography: Clair Popkin, Keith Walker
Editor: Jessica Congdon
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders, Brandon Roberts
PG-13, 101 minutes