The Way I See It: A Look at Two Presidencies Through Pete Souza’s Lens (Review)
The Way I See It gives an inside look behind the scenes of photographer’s work with Obama and Reagan, pulls no punches about Trump.
For years, Pete Souza was more than happy to lay low behind the scenes — until he realized it was time to step up and speak out a little more. That’s the main focus behind Dawn Porter’s newest documentary, The Way I See It, which is about Souza and his career as the White House photographer to both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. The documentary, which is co-presented by Focus Features and MSNBC Films and debuted select theaters on Sept. 18 before premiering on MSNBC on Oct. 9, is an intimate and unique look at two presidencies as told by someone who was around them as much as anyone who wasn’t a family member during their years in the White House.
There’s a lot to love about The Way I See It as a piece of nostalgia for a different era of American politics, and also what feels like a much different version of America than the one we are currently living in. Souza got the opportunity to be in the room to capture several moments that have gone on to provide iconic images that will be remembered for many years. The documentary, which unsurprisingly spends much of its time covering Souza’s time working with Obama, takes you behind the scenes with Souza — through interviews with the filmmakers and via clips from book and lecture tours he’s done — where he covers a wide range of things he got to experience. We get to relive the triumphant moments, like the night of the Osama bin Laden raid or the night the Affordable Care Act passed, and the hard times, like Obama consoling grieving parents in Newtown, Connecticut, or giving the eulogy in Charleston, South Carolina, after the mass shooter tragedies in those cities.
And then there is a lot of time spent on what you could tell was the part Souza enjoyed looking back on the most: the heart-warming moments where he captured Obama being a husband and father. You see it a lot throughout this documentary, photos of Obama with his two daughters, as they grew up during the eight years their father was the president. Even in the parts when it looks at Souza’s time working with Reagan (even if it doesn’t spend much time on that portion of his career), it is clear that was his favorite part of the job. Were there moments that Souza witnessed Reagan do things as president that he didn’t agree with in terms of his politics and the types of policy he liked? Sure. But at the end of the day, Souza said he respected Reagan because he was “exactly the same behind the scenes as in front of the camera.”
Of course, The Way I See It also spends a good chunk of the film on the things that Souza has been doing since Obama left the White House. The documentary is inspired by the two books he’s released in recent years — 2017’s “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” and 2018’s “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.” The film also gets into Souza’s new status as a social media hero among circles of people who are eager to dunk on Donald Trump at any given time. When it touches on that part, Souza and his colleagues pull no punches when talking about their feelings about the current president. As Souza talks about what it was like working for Reagan and Obama, two men who he clearly admired as people even if one of them didn’t align with him as a politician, he would often bring up their character and the way they handled themselves in office with a degree of humility and class that you need in order to do the job. He didn’t have to be very subtle to know exactly the point he was trying to get across.
As a person who personally agrees with the points made and sees the vast differences as a president and person that we’ve seen between Trump and his predecessor, I liked that part quite a bit. But as a person who wanted to watch a documentary about Souza and learn about him as a photographer and what it was like getting to capture these moments from Obama and Reagan on camera, that’s the part where this missed the mark. As I mentioned earlier, it is great when it showed the behind-the-scenes stories of what it was like to be in those moments and getting to witness what that was like — and honestly, The Way I See It was able to get the points it wanted to make about the contrasts between the different administrations across just by showcasing that.
You can watch a number of documentaries or read so many other things that center on the contrast between Obama’s America and Trump’s America. But this documentary had a really interesting opportunity to examine in an extensive and meaningful way what it was like to get to be that person who got to be along for the ride and see all those moments unfold and learn what it meant to be president, and why it takes a certain type of person to be able to handle the job. This tried to be a little too on-the-nose about it which can work in certain ways and, overall, did work here for me.
When this shows up on MSNBC throughout the month or so before Election Day, if you align politically with the message of the film, you’ll really enjoy it. Ultimately, it could have been framed a little differently and would have been better if they hadn’t gone for the most obvious point to drive home. But you do get a great look at a wonderful photographer who produced some of the most iconic presidential images in American history, which was a lot of fun. It’s a nice nostalgia trip to get to relive some of those moments and ultimately drives home the message that Trump just does not quite measure up to the other presidents that Souza got to work around.
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