Even if you don't recognize the name Pete Souza, you've undoubtedly seen his work. He was the official White House photographer during both the Reagan and Obama administrations, responsible for some of the most iconic pictures ever of both men. (That one of Obama bending over so a little boy can touch his hair? Souza took it.) Working for both a Republican and a Democratic administration gave him a unique perspective on the presidency, one that he expounds upon in the documentary The Way I See It. Firmly non-political in the past, Souza now expresses concern that the office is in grave danger at the present moment.
Much of the film is comprised of Souza telling stories about how he was hired and what it was like to serve under two very different presidents. The stories he has are amazing – from getting unprecedented candid photos of Reagan and wife Nancy, to being in the room with Obama as he spent hours consoling the families of Sandy Hook victims. If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then The Way I See It is good for millions. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Souza's pictures are shown, and there are incredible stories behind them. The experience of listening to him tell these personal tales, while looking at his work, is dazzling.
What we come away with is Souza's profound respect for the office of the presidency. He's seen good times and bad times first-hand, affording him an opportunity to document history for future generations. He says, at one point, that the beauty of a still photograph is that it pauses time. That certainly seems true, based on his pictures. The one of President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Situation Room waiting to see if a mission to take out Osama bin Laden succeeds is a case study in anxiety, with everyone's face registering the high stakes.
The movie has an additional layer. Souza has become popular in the last few years due to his Instagram account, through which he uses his photos to subtly criticize Donald Trump. It's not an act of partisanship. Souza is clear that he agreed/disagreed with both Reagan and Obama on issues, and considered himself to be not especially partisan. However, he sees in Trump something very different than he saw in the other two presidents. Gone are the senses of dignity and compassion his former bosses had. They took the office seriously and attempted to do right by the American people. Souza talks about what he sees as the negative impact of a sitting president not caring to maintain the decorum that is a necessity for the job.
If The Way I See It sounds like a Trump-bashing picture, it really isn't. Yes, the subject is critical of Trump. The larger point, though, is that Pete Souza was everywhere with two different presidents, from two different parties. He sees the qualities that are supposed to be inherent in the presidency crumbling, a fact that troubles him deeply. Dismissing his views is impossible. After all, he's been right there for so much. A view from the inside proves valuable, since he got a glimpse of the inner workings that the majority of us will never have.
Regardless of your opinion of Trump, The Way I See It is just a massively entertaining documentary about a guy whose job gave him a front row seat to history. Because of his output, important moments in America will be preserved forever.
Note: The Way I See It will be in theatres on September 18, 2020 and will air on MSNBC on October 16th.
out of four
The Way I See It is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.