Pete Souza doc ‘The Way I See It’ skates by on Obama nostalgia

Pete Souza doc 'The Way I See It' skates by on Obama nostalgia

Pete Souza may have been the official photographer for the Obama White House, but it’s in the Trump years that he’s become a household name. His social media feeds, filled with carefully selected photographs and snarky captions that contrast the current president’s failures against his predecessor’s successes, go viral on a regular basis, yielding breathless headlines and charming interviews and even an entire book of his best and shadiest moments.

Now a new documentary, The Way I See It, tries to carry on that narrative in movie form. But in its unwillingness to dig beyond these glossy photographs, it seems only to reveal the limitations of Souza’s chosen medium for political commentary.

The Way I See It is ostensibly about Souza, and it does spend a chunk of time exploring his biography (did you know he was also the photographer for the Reagan White House?). We learn that he was always drawn to photography, that he was a photojournalist before he was a White House photographer, that he snuck into Afghanistan to take photographs just weeks after 9/11, that he was never vocally political until the Trump years. We get a glimpse of what his life is like now that he’s done with the White House.

We get to ooh and ahh at Souza’s Obama-era photography, and listen to him tell some cute anecdotes about how some of those shots were captured. One of the most interesting digressions is Souza comparing the Obama situation room photo to Trump’s, from the perspective of a guy who recognizes exactly what the situation entails for a photographer. The differences really do tell a story about how each leader sees the world and wants to be seen by it.

Gradually, though, it becomes clear that Souza is just a lens through which to view Obama, who is the real subject of the documentary. It’s not a surprise that The Way I See It centers on their relationship, and it’s undeniable that Souza, as an documentarian who was essentially by Obama’s side from morning ’til night, enjoyed a uniquely intimate relationship with a man famous to billions. 

But The Way I See It has little to offer in the way of actual insight from that closeness, or from Obama’s relationships with the other former staffers featured in the movie. For instance: Did you know that Obama was a really nice guy? Like, really nice? Did you know he was a devoted husband and a doting father? Did you know he worried over weighty decisions, but also took joy in simple pleasures like basketball? Of course you did, in no small part thanks to Souza’s own work shaping these ideas about Obama. But Souza gushes over them again here, as if trying to convince us of the truth in these photos. 

Perhaps it’s only natural that a film about photos would fixate on optics, but The Way I See It inadvertently implies that looking the part for the cameras is all that matters.

Granted, Souza is not the only American who misses the Obama years. Nor is he the only one whose affection for Obama seems to stem as much from Obama’s personality as his actual leadership. It’s not unpleasant to listen to Souza joke that Obama’s actual favorite moment of his presidency was the time he blocked Reggie Love, or reminisce about the time he captured an impromptu snowball fight between Obama and his daughters, and if you’re feeling particularly nostalgic maybe it’ll even be comforting. It’s just not particularly illuminating. 

At one point, the documentary follows Souza to a conference in India where he’s asked if he ever experienced any conflict between his commitment as a photojournalist to telling the truth, and his drive, subconscious or otherwise, as an official White House photographer, to project a certain image of Obama. Souza’s response is brief and definitive: “I didn’t ever think of it as a conflict because I wasn’t a PR photographer. I look at myself as a historian with a camera.”

And yet, The Way I See It feels like little more than a bit of PR fluff for a bygone leader — and perhaps, by extension, his former VP. Time and time again, Souza and the other talking heads return to the idea that, regardless of what you thought of his politics, Obama “behaved” as a president should. Photographs are dutifully trotted out to show us exactly how kind and empathetic and level-headed and intelligent Obama was, unlike his much-reviled successor.

The film is not wrong that Obama’s comportment was more appropriately “presidential,” and they’re not even wrong that it matters what image a president projects of himself to the public. The emphasis on “behavior” starts to ring hollow, however, in the absence of any deeper exploration at all of Trump, Obama, photojournalism, or the presidency. 

Perhaps it’s only natural that a film about photographs would fixate on the optics of the two presidencies. But by skating by on surface-level nostalgia, The Way I See It inadvertently implies that looking the part for the cameras is all that matters.

The Way I See It is playing now at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released in theaters Sep. 18.

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