‘The Way I See It’ Movie Review: Pete Souza Doc Shows Obama’s Gentle Side, Not Much Else
Those active in a certain sector of American liberalism will have quickly become familiar with the name Pete Souza over the last few years. The former official photographer for the Obama White House has made quite a name for himself by posting pictures of the 44th president with captions that draw a sharp contrast between his behavior and that of his successor — they’ve been a kind of catnip for the #resistance.
Seasoned documentarian Dawn Porter has taken it upon herself to tell Souza’s story, or rather allowing Souza to tell his own story — Porter’s presence as the director of the film is strangely absent. The Way I See It presages its entire format in the title: this is slightly under two hours of Souza describing his unique perspective on the Obama presidency.
There are plenty of merits to this approach, namely in that Barack Obama has a kind of dignity and gravitas that makes for some extremely compelling moments. Hearing Souza choke up at seeing the former president’s compassion towards the families of Sandy Hook victims or wounded veterans, it was difficult not to become overwhelmed myself. Even the smallest anecdotes from that blissful period between 2009 and 2016 manage to have an impact.
Even so, the documentary as a whole feels remarkably slight as a viewing experience. It is, essentially, a recording of a speech given by Souza, fluffed up with photos, videos, and other media to paint a fuller picture of the man’s time in the White House. Souza is a remarkable photographer and a man with a cogent mission — he is, however, not a particularly electrifying figure. Those who enjoy this documentary will enjoy the close proximity it offers to Obama, for its merits fall short beyond that point.
The ostensible goal of the film is aligned with the goal of Souza’s entire existence at the moment: showcase the behavior of Obama to implicitly (sometimes explicitly) condemn the behavior of Trump. In this respect, I find the movie lacking, though not for lack of effort. The Way I See It does indeed show Obama at his most dignified, his most human — that itself might be the issue. The film comes across mostly as a hagiography; there’s nothing wrong with extolling the virtues of a popular president, but when the film contrasts all of Obama’s best moments with Trump’s worst, it becomes surprisingly difficult even to compare the two. Porter’s film makes me more nostalgic for those years than it makes me feel like they’re a viable path forward in 2020 and beyond.
As a tribute to Obama the man, The Way I See It is a successful project. As a springboard for political activism, which is what the movie is clearly trying to be, it flounders. Souza wants kindness and humility to be something around which the country can rally — admirable, yes, but so glaringly out-of-touch with the current political world.
The Way I See It is a touching piece of political history, but it reads far better as an artifact than as a manifesto.