Back in high school, I spent a semester learning the art and precision of good photography. Even if it couldn’t last forever, the skill and integrity I’ve discovered in that short time is something I could carry with me. The heart and soul of a good photojournalist can form early and grow with time and experience. With camera in hand, they can tell a story and make it feel immortal. All while staying discreet and unobtrusive. And for Pete Souza, his time in the White House is like a scrapbook frozen by the hand of time. Finally, his story is told in The Way I See It, a fascinating if not slow-rolling documentary eager to remind us all of the past and hold at least one thin shred of optimism toward an uncertain future.
Directed by Dawn Porter (a hot name in the docu sphere after her equally timely John Lewis: Good Trouble), Way plays like a calm, soothing retrospective, a filmic peppermint tea that calms the mind while playing the retrospective time machine card. Perhaps a bit overly as Souza describes the highs and lows, inside that guarded palace and outside, on a lecture tour before excited audiences. First with Reagan, where the pair disagreed on policy. Then traveling around the world, up close on the front lines, then finally working directly with Barack Obama, with whom a true friendship was struck.
Souza’s range of emotion in his work, from the lighthearted (Barack proudly coaching his kids’ basketball squad) to the deadly serious (moments snapped in the situation room in the moments after the Bin Laden raid), is uniquely commendable. And he still has a legion of fans eager to share their greatest memories with the guy. I would say Doris Kearns Goodwin had the most cheerful comments, as did one-time National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and former UN ambassador Samantha Power. All of whom illustrates the clout Souza had, and that bond forged over all eight years of the Obama administration, to the point that his wedding took place inside the Rose Garden.
Porter eventually sinks her filmed study into a fair rhythm, until we realize the fairy tale ride is over. Souza does not go quietly, as his more recent book implies. The first half is essentially inspired by “Obama: An American Portrait”. The latter portion is where Porter redeems the viewer, influenced by the cautiously relevant “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.” That transitionary period moving away from the House into free agency came with a built-up snark, venting his frustrations in commentary form with a decadent class on Instagram. This is easily where Souza best thrives and is the most candid throughout the film. Across the years, his expression was all visual. But now, he could be just as proficient in the written word, getting his own voice out without it falling underneath the shadow of an employer.
That’s likely the essential plot point of The Way I See It, always fighting to make one’s voice heard, whether it’s your own. Even if it’s just eye candy, there’s something to be said, and I must tip my cap off to Mr. Pete Souza for his admiration, his honesty, his confidence in transcending time. Even while his story borders upon the repetitive and occasionally pandering in the name of nostalgia, the story he has to share, one about himself and his luck, stands out just as much as work will permanently speak for itself. Porter is just listening, and stitching Souza’s vision into something purely delightful. We’re all listening, with utmost positivity. I think we need that a little more this autumn. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Way I See It is playing in select theaters, even if there aren’t any nearby playing this enjoyable doc; rated PG-13 for brief strong language; 100 minutes.