There’s a cruel irony to the way Dawn Porter’s “The Way I See It” unfolds: this documentary about presidential photographer Pete Souza, who served as the official shutterbug for both the Reagan and Obama administrations, never quite knows where to focus. The problem is not that Porter, who this year has already given us “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” is unclear on the power of the images she’s following, but that Souza’s work has already filled seven books, innumerable newspaper pages, and one very popular Instagram account, a single film doesn’t seem fit to do it justice. That Souza’s legacy is so caught up in that of Obama’s doesn’t help matters either, and if both Souza and Porter are prone to turning “The Way I See It” into a doc about the former president, well, it’s understandable. It’s not entirely forgivable, though.
For Souza, his job as Chief Official White House Photographer offered him the unique opportunity to show what it’s like “on the inside of a presidency.” First hired by the White House when he was just an up-and-comer at the Chicago Sun-Times, Souza learned while doing, honing both his intimate style and the thinking that went into it at the same time. An early segment of the film provides valuable insight into those Reagan years, with Souza — who seems like both a funny and emotionally astute guy — reminiscing on how his philosophy shaped his work, a gig he clearly still has great reverence for. But the changing face of the presidency and the people who chronicle it is never far from Souza’s mind, or at least, it’s never far from the mind of the man we meet in “The Way I See It,” and while the film initially seems like a staid survey of an incredible life, it soon becomes something more urgent.
In short, Pete Souza is pissed off, even though he’s savvy enough (and classy enough) to share those thoughts through both his photographs and a speaking tour that seems like a hell of a lot of fun. Early reflections on the final days of the Obama administration are tinged with sadness, and as Donald Trump and his coterie move in (and shove not just Souza, but the entire usual photography brigade out), “The Way I See It” becomes less a story about Souza and more an elegy for very different time. “I’m not literally in the room anymore, but I know what happens in the room,” Souza tells us, before admitting that he’s afraid of what the presidency looks like without someone there to chronicle it.
Porter’s film tips between timelines and tones in ways that are increasingly hard to follow. One moment, “The Way I See It” is expounding on the history of the White House’s Photography Office (offering compelling talking heads tasked with voicing obvious ideas, like that photographs are important) and Souza’s own crazy career trajectory, the next, it’s got presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin ticking off the personality traits that make a good president (and as gratifying as they may be to anyone who isn’t a fan our sitting president, who doesn’t have any of them, it’s unclear why they are in this particular film).
Or, perhaps it is clear, because while Souza and his life and work are more than interesting enough topics for a documentary, what “The Way I See It” is really about — what it really wants to be about — is not the man who took the photographs, but the man who was the subject of those photographs.
Souza is a willing and open subject, and Porter catches him in settings that are both intimate (some of his best observations spill out of his mouth while he’s busy pulling on a winter coat and heading out the door) and more readily public (again: a very fun speaking tour). His mother and wife both offer funny and compelling interviews, and eagle-eyed viewers will instantly pick up on Souza’s love of music (this is a man who appears to own at least two different Brandi Carlile shirts). He’s a great pick for a documentary, but “The Way I See It” is, unfortunately, not interested in investing in him as its primary focus.
Still, the documentary’s scattered storytelling never gets in the way of its emotional power, which is staggering. Vacillating between showing the deep humanity of Obama through his words and deeds — an extended sequence chronicling the tragedy at Sandy Hook and his response to it is easily one of the year’s most affecting — and showing Souza hard at work capturing it all, Porter clearly had a massive trove of material to pull from. The final product may not cohere, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many parts of the film to admire.
“The Way I See It” pulls a bit tighter on Souza as it begins to wind down, following his evolution from a striving photographer who happened to work for the White House to a “vocal political person” willing to put his career on the line to be outspoken about the things that matter to him. The genesis of Souza’s popular Instagram account provides a necessary thread that attempts to pull all the film’s disparate ideas together, and while it’s difficult to shake the sense that so much remains unsaid about Souza, at least “The Way I See It” gives him the chance to show off his own final images.
“The Way I See It” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in select theaters on Friday, September 18.
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