There’s no denying the impact of Dawn Porter’s documentary about photographer Pete Souza, The Way I See It. Most famous for his work as the chief photographer of the Obama administration, Souza stands a fine, dignified figure as the centerpiece and main talking head of Porter’s biographic film. The narrative is structured in depicting his work mainly between two radically different men – President Reagan and President Obama – though the framework skews heavily to the latter and for a purpose. Because this isn’t so much about Souza’s work as an iconic photographer to millions, but his retribution for being politically absent and his call to arms as he watched as Trump wrecked havoc and stampeded through the White House without grace, respect or knowledge about what his title entailed. The effectiveness of Porter’s film will vary on how pissed off we are at large, and with a pandemic still bulldozing its way through a country with now more than 190,000 dead and the West Coast on fire, this is as good as time as any to once again stir the simmering anger so many of us have been sitting with.
The Way I See It is a powerful documentary despite it being largely a slideshow of Obama’s most defining moments as Commander in Chief, moments that to us now, four years removed, can’t help but place him on a pedestal in comparison to the egomaniac who is currently running the country into the ground. It lives in that anger because its focus, Souza, is angry too. The film’s initial jumping point is when Souza decided he couldn’t be silent any longer and began to use his Instagram not just to release his work but also to call out lies made by Trump and make direct comparisons to how a leader is supposed to behave. It’s an easy, dramatic pull because the difference is striking. Even if we’re already prone and indoctrinated to the evils that Trump can commit, the lies that he can spew and the vitriol and violence he inspires in his followers, to be reminded of a man who knew dignity, grace and strove for truth is both a hopeful reminder as well as it is an embittered one.
Where the documentary might’ve legitimized itself more was if it were to have focused more on Souza’s work for Reagan as well as Obama. Instead, the distribution is wildly imbalanced and makes for a more targeted, biased piece of work. The differences between Obama and Trump are obvious and easy to spot and the differences between Reagan and Trump are presented similarly. Reagan was still not a Good man, and just because he understood professionalism and workplace hospitality while the latter does not doesn’t erase his detrimental marks on history, a point the film should’ve dissected further.
The documentary reminds us of Obama’s charisma, meaning that even when it feels like there should be more focus on Souza’s lifework itself, we can’t help but be drawn back into our last president’s orbit. From victory to tragedy and all that lies in between a troubled but often inspiring administration, Souza clearly captured tremendous, history making moments. He captures the lines in President Obama’s face as they begin to deepen, an eight year term in office worrying down the edges of once a bright, vibrant politician. He captures moments of familial connection between him, Michelle and their two daughters. Most interestingly, he shoots at range, spotting him from a bird’s eye view between pillars at the White House or through a window, depicting a distance between us and the subject, with framing that gives it grandeur. There’s beauty in his work, and Porter moves at such a clip through the ups and downs that there’s the sense she knows too that to elicit the greatest reaction, we need to be put through the ringer. Souza has captured history, Porter has made it cinematic.
In the background, there’s a quiet, assuring reminder that art and history are deeply entwined with one another as Souza talks about the power of a still photograph in an age obsessed with quick, easily digestible moving images. It’s another example of how Souza is overshadowed by the man he’s celebrating, to both the film’s loss and gain. It’s a shame that so much of the success of The Way I See It is derivative of a culture – a nation’s – disconnect, disgust and dismay at our current “leader.” For fans of Souza and those who have followed his work, the documentary isn’t offering us anything new – nor is it so insightful that we walk away enlightened – it’s simply a testament of its time. It’s effective because it gives us momentary relief and validates our rage while asking once again for us to have hope and to keep moving ahead. It’s one of many, many wake up calls that there’s work to be done still.