Producers: Dawn Porter, Evan Hayes, Laura Dern and Jayme Lemons Director: Dawn Porter Cast: Pete Souza, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Wheeler Distributor: Focus Features
The stream of vitriol that Donald Trump has aimed at his predecessor in the Oval Office has obviously riled Pete Souza, A mild-mannered fellow who served as the chief White House photographer during the Obama administration (and, earlier, that of Ronald Reagan). He had long taken the apolitical stance prized by photojournalists, but has now become a strong defender of Obama and critic of Trump, in the process earning—depending on your point of view—either praise or condemnation through his Instagram photo posts, books (most recently “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents”) and public lectures. Dawn Porter’s documentary (a follow-up to her recent film about John Lewis, “Good Trouble”) gives him the opportunity to have his say on screen—first the big one through this Focus Features release, and soon the small one via showings on MSNBC (one of the production companies behind it).
“The Way I See It” is partly a biography of Souza, told with an often wry, self-deprecating tone and helped along by scads of film footage and stills as well as a few comments from his mother and sister, regarding childhood, education, early newspaper and magazine work. There are also observations about his on-the-job, fly-on-the-wall picture-taking from Obama aides like Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as well as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. (His years with Reagan—from 1983 to 1988—are handled more cursorily. But what comes through, via photos like an iconic one of the President shattered by the report about the Iran-Contra affair, is that Souza had a high opinion of him as a man even when he disagreed with his policies. And the fact that Mrs. Reagan asked him to photograph her husband’s funeral indicates that the respect was mutual.)
His eight years with Obama obviously impressed him. What comes through clearly, in both his photographs and his words, is admiration for the President as a man (especially a family man), particularly in terms of the exceptional empathy he showed toward those impacted by national tragedies. One of the most affecting sequences focuses on the President’s report to the nation on the horrendous mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, and his visit to comfort the families of its victims; the photos Souza took of Obama hugging the mother of six-year old Benjamin Wheeler, and the recollection of the boy’s father David, remain heart-rending. The film also offers extensive coverage of the moving eulogy the President gave at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor murdered in the Charleston church massacre of 2015. A sequence memorializing Obama’s continuing concern for a Marine seriously injured in combat, even visiting him at home, is also extraordinarily powerful.
Here and elsewhere Souza emphasizes the genuine human contact Obama made not only with other “ordinary” citizens, especially children—shown in photos he took at the events he and confirmed by those who attended them—but with his own staff, including a health bill staffer whose sons the President made time for and Souza himself. The President greeted members of the photographer’s family at the White House and even officiated at his wedding (which he encouraged) in the Rose Garden.
More generally Souza applauds Obama’s grace and dignity in office, in both word and deed, and his openness to having the activities of his administration documented so fully and honestly. He finds a complete contrast in Trump, who apparently allows only carefully staged, “official” photographs and is, Souza believes, doing immeasurable harm to the office by his vulgarity, invective and mendaciousness. It was that belief that, Souza says, impelled him to shed his reticence and become increasingly outspoken in comparing the two men, first through his popular Instagram postings and then in his books and lectures. In his view, Obama represented the way a President should behave; Trump does not.
Some viewers—especially those hostile to Obama—will find “The Way I See It” as hagiographical ; certainly it is fulsome in its respect and admiration, but it does occasionally touch humorously on the President’s foibles—like his competitiveness, which comes out clearly in basketball, as both occasional court battles and one instance when he coached his daughter’s school team show. Of course, that will hardly be enough for those who seem to despise Obama as much as Trump does; the motives behind such inordinate hatred can only be guessed at, though some guesses are better than others. It might be noted, though, that the attitude toward him on the part of his former staffers contrasts markedly toward Trump from many who have left his circle, whether voluntarily or otherwise.
In any event, abetted by first-rate work from Porter, composers Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders and Brandon Roberts, cinematographers Clair Popkin and Keither Walker and especially editor Jessica Congdon, who ensures the film’s fluency, Souza, an ingratiating host, presents a strong case for his view that our two most recent Presidents are different as night and day. It probably won’t change a lot of minds, but will leave those who feel as Souza does longing for a return to the days that prevailed in the Oval Office four long years ago.