Movie review: Documentary on former White House photographer Pete Souza does a lot of showing and telling
Let me not mince words here. Even if you’re an admirer of photojournalism, or believe that a picture is worth a thousand words, or you can appreciate how much work, skill - and sometimes luck - it takes to get a still shot that tells a good story, this documentary about former White House photographer Pete Souza might not be for you.
His title, which he held from January 2009 till January 2017, was Chief Official Photographer for the Obama Presidency. He had previously worked as one of the White House photographers during the Reagan administration, and later, while on staff at various newspapers, met, started taking pictures of, and got to know Barack Obama. Souza was offered the White House gig on Jan. 5, 2009, two weeks before Obama’s inauguration.
Because of his time there during the Reagan years, Souza set a goal with his new, top of the heap position: to photographically capture all sides of the job of being president, including Obama’s roles as a husband and father.
That the film is brimming with fascinating, intimate photos - some of them serious, some relaxed, others funny, still others wonderfully candid - would be enough to make it something to keep you mesmerized.
But it’s also director Dawn Porter’s structure of it that just won’t let go of anyone watching. Souza is first seen on a stage in a large auditorium, giving a PowerPoint lecture on his career. The film shows him up there reminiscing about his White House years, while some of his favorite photos are projected behind him and he offers brief stories on each one of them. He’s a great storyteller, and our ability to look at, study, and enjoy what he’s talking about is icing on that cake.
Because Souza was given total access to everyone and every place in the White House, and because the job was, in his words, “nonstop, every day, 24/7,” and he was “always on call, always ready,” the fruits of his labors are stunning.
The photos shown in the film include: the Obama inauguration - from preparations to the event to the celebrations following it; Obama meeting the public in both good times and after disasters; Obama leaving a note for Donald Trump in the Oval Office desk; Obama saying goodbye to the White House staff. We see the iconic, sobering shot of the tense Situation Room as the military was closing in on Osama bin Laden, and are provided a good laugh at a photo of Obama playing one-on-one basketball with Duke University court-star Reggie Love.
Souza developed a reputation of exhibiting a great eye and for having the kind of intuition that let him know where to be and to work fast. And he used all of that wisely. “I wasn’t a P/R photographer in the White House,” he says. “I look at myself as a historian ... with a camera.”
It all sounds good, doesn’t it? So, why would I believe that the film might not be the right thing for certain viewers?
The first hint comes when Souza is shown after he had left the White House, walking in the woods, getting some shots of nature, talking about his unease for the country, partly because so much of the photography in the White House today is made up of what he calls “posed moments.”
“One thing I’m concerned about with the current administration,” he says, “is that the access is not the same as I had for Obama. I think history will suffer as a result.” He takes it a grim step further by adding that, because he was there, he knows what goes on in the Oval Office, “and that’s what scares me today.”
Toward the end of “The Way I See It,” both the film and the formerly apolitical Souza get political, and nothing good is said about the man who’s now in the Oval Office. (Souza demonstrates a particularly creative way of making his feelings known.) If you’re an Obama fan or a lover of photography, this film is for you. If you’re a Trump fan, you don’t want to see it.
“The Way I See It” premieres on MSNBC on Oct. 16 at 10 p.m.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Way I See It”
Directed by Dawn Porter
With Pete Souza