The slickest, most polished commercial for a photo collection book the world has ever seen, “The Way I See It” is less a documentary and more of a sales pitch. An assemblage of interviews and speaking engagement clips, on its surface the film is a meditation on presidential temperament as seen through the eyes of Obama’s official White House photographer, Pete Souza. There is nothing especially revelatory here, however, and rather than probe at difficult questions or unexplored avenues of consideration, the documentary contents itself with a book report approach whose conclusions are known from the jump.
Director Dawn Porter assembles “The Way I See It” well, teasing at the broader thesis of the effort in the opening minutes by providing background on the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. The doc then shifts to its subject, Souza, who relates his bio/origin story before offering up his bona fides. The official White House photographer for a big chunk of Reagan’s presidency, Souza covered Obama in the Senate, and seemed a natural choice for his old White House position when the 44th president took office in 2009.
Porter uses Souza’s pictures from this period to paint a flattering portrait of Obama as a sensitive, empathetic, yet committed leader whose confidence and integrity inspired nearly everyone around him. Obama-era officials and staffers like Samantha Power (former ambassador to the U.N.) and Brian Mosteller (former director of Oval Office Operations) add their voices to these reflections, and present a picture of a president whose integrity and compassion guided his every move in office.
At the conclusion of Obama’s second term, Souza had a brief flirtation with notoriety when he started using his old camera roll to subtly troll President Donald Trump. His juxtaposition of photographs between the classy and classless led to a book deal for a photo collection Souza put out in 2018 titled “Shade,” and the footage from that book’s signing and speaking tour make up a hearty portion of Porter’s doc. As pictures from “Shade” flash on-screen (along with images of the dust jacket), one can’t help but feel somewhat cornered in the same way a person on vacation might when they accidentally stumble into a timeshare presentation.
The bait and switch of the book’s sales pitch is just one issue, though, with the bigger one seemingly one of perspective and timing. Dropping this documentary in the home stretch of the presidential race, when new bombshells are landing daily about Trump bad-mouthing veterans or speaking on tape about downplaying the dangers of COVID-19, undersell Souza and Porter’s central message. The intimate moments the photographer captured of Obama reveal an unabating undercurrent of compassion and strength absent from the White House in 2020, sure…but you knew that, what else is new?
There was a coy, mischievous humor that surrounded Souza’s earliest attempts at mocking Trump and his administration via Instagram when drapery choices and public posture dominated the discourse of the new administration. Using the photos as a sort of decoder ring to parse out the differences between Trump and Obama was a clever, fun little game back then, yet it all seems a bit trite in the middle of a recession pandemic.
Which is to say that “The Way I See It” suffers not only from it being little more than a well-crafted book commercial, but that even in this regard it lacks any real punch. It would be like a person releasing a film about the dangers of lifeboat shortages on cruise lines a week after the Titanic sank. At one point, Souza says, “I see myself as a historian with a camera,” which is entirely fair, yet somewhat beside the point in the home stretch of the 2020 presidential campaign. Porter and her producers obviously crafted and released this documentary for maximum effect at a crucial point in the sociopolitical conversation, yet there is nothing insightful here.
And while there is always value in highlighting the importance of empathy and good temperament in a leader, there’s nothing inherently vital or fresh about what’s seen in “The Way I See It.” The discussions about Reagan early on are intriguing, as it points towards a gulf between Trump and Obama that isn’t defined by party affiliations, and might have led to a discussion about personal disposition at the highest levels of power, and the ways different backgrounds or experiences inform this behavior.
Likewise, discussions with other official White House photographers for different presidents would have blown this topic out and might have informed the audience about a larger truth or worldview. Taking viewers on a journey whose destination isn’t foreordained does not seem to be on the agenda for “The Way I See It” and its sales pitch, which might work for a book yet clearly doesn’t for the movie. [C-]