Dawn Porter Shows off Pete Souza’s Presidential Portfolio in ‘The Way I See It’

To begin with, Pete Souza didn’t like the drapes. Deep reds look so much better in an oval office than ornate gold curtains. But Souza is a photographer not an interior decorator, and not just any photographer. He served two terms as Official White House Photographer under two different two-term presidents. Souza photographed Ronald Reagan. He had Barack Obama in his sights. He lost his job when Donald Trump entered the White House. The former “Apprentice” host fired the entire presidential photography staff. Souza does not like what he sees now. It’s not photogenic. Did you see the drapes? And don’t get him started on what has become of the situation room.

The Way I See It” is director Dawn Porter’s documentary adaption of Souza’s New York Times #1 bestselling 2018 photo book, “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.” In the book, Souza lobs cute Obama administration photographs against Trump’s contentious daily tweets and wins in a photo finish. When Trump tweeted about Obama spying on him, Souza posted a picture of the former president with his eye on a peephole. In the documentary, the presidential chronicler goes from the objective fly on the wall who drops the temperature in a room to an Instagram troll, throwing shade from the dark perspective of a lifelong photojournalist who has seen better days. Like the day he captured President Obama coaching a basketball game for his daughter Sasha. It’s nearly four years into the Trump administration, and a stunned and silent majority dreads what might be revealed in a photo of the sitting president and his daughter.

“The Way I See It” is reflective film in the broken-mirror age, and when Souza drew a line in the curtains on Trump’s January 2017 inauguration day, he didn’t know the meaning of the word shade, at least its double meaning. But he did know he had a bigger vocabulary than the man whose negatives he’d never develop. The documentary is also aware of it. Twitter has a word count limit and pictures tell a thousand words.

“The Way I See It” tells its story as the filmmakers follow Souza while he gives promotional talks for his book. It also gets into Souza’s backstory. He was a photojournalist at the Chicago Sun-Times before he was a White House photographer. Souza’s years with Republican President Ronald Reagan taught him that nice people often did bad things, like ignoring the AIDS crisis, and enabling the dope-for-guns deals of the Iran-Contra maneuvers. But the president and former actor loved his wife Nancy, who later asked Souza to photograph Reagan’s funeral. We learn Souza married his wife Patti years after they met, and only after Obama nudged him into it and offered them a White House Rose Garden wedding. After leaving his White House duties, Souza went back to newspaper work and snuck into Afghanistan weeks after the Twin Tower attacks to take photographs. 

Talking heads agree photographs are important. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us what makes a good president. Susan Rice and Samantha Power are as diplomatic as they were when it was their titles. David Wheeler, the father of one of the children murdered at Sandy Hook, shares a particularly moving memory. The documentary makers speak with Souza’s mother and wife. We get some fun stories, as well background into the importance of the work itself, and the joy it was to bring home, even in the midst of tragedy. The pictures, of course, almost speak for themselves as the second lead.

Porter, who also directed the civil rights documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” is distracted by the images. Souza did catch a snowball fight between Obama and his daughters. He caught the president sharing a power bar with the son of one of his staff. He also caught historic images like Obama’s tearful response to the Sandy Hook school shootings of 2012 and the iconic war room image taken during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Souza encapsulates the presidency from Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 to the final helicopter ride in 2017. 

“The Way I See It” is an art appreciation film. The documentary is centered by pictures of President Obama and his family, as well as intimate shots of the Executive branch. Porter captures Souza’s desire to capture authenticity, truth, emotion and context, in a personal effort to preserve history. “The Way I See It” doesn’t go past the photographs. We don’t get a sense of his relationship with Obama. We don’t get the kind of behind-the-scenes moments most inner circle documentaries offer. We hear anecdotes about catching the right moments. We don’t see Obama sneaking out for a cigarette.

During a book tour conference in India, Souza says he’s a “historian with a camera” not a “PR photographer.” At another point in the documentary, he tells an interviewer he is a government photographer. What we see in the film are propaganda pictures. They are effective, but they tell the obvious. Obama made us feel good. We also learn the equally underwhelming news that Trump is cruel, incompetent and not particularly ready for his closeup. “The Way I See It” affirms political ideology, it doesn’t challenge it and nothing is overexposed in the dark room. It is forced perception in soft focus and doesn’t fully show photography as an effective tool for political commentary. The film is emotionally powerful, but nostalgic. Documentaries should pick at at least one scab on their subject. This is more of a formal portrait than a candid shot of Souza. Either that or it’s a documentary on Obama. 

The Way I See It” releases Sept. 18 on VOD.