They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and following that adage, former White House photographer Pete Souza’s body of work could fill up the dictionary countless times. A magnificent story told in a captivating and cinematic way, The Way I See It is one of the most poignant and unexpected political documentaries of the year.
The film tells the story of Pete Souza who worked as an official White House photographer for both the Reagan and Obama presidencies before the election of Donald Trump into office in 2016, at which point he became outspoken about his political beliefs. As far as political documentaries go, this one stands out because Souza offers a unique perspective that allows him to compare the policies of multiple leaders.
Souza is definitely an interesting subject, and he has enough experiences that it would be easy to make a full-length docuseries of him sharing his journey, starting as a photojournalist before becoming a “historian with a camera” as he calls it. In condensing his prolific career into a documentary of an hour and forty two minutes, director Dawn Porter rushes through some parts of his tale, like his experiences in the Reagan presidency, but does a great job of showing Souza’s relationship with President Obama.
In a way, the film has three foci. Of course, this is Souza’s story of how he used his camera to capture these moments in time. However, there is also an obvious political angle to the documentary in that it explores the dichotomy that exists between America’s last two Presidents. Like Souza’s book Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents, Porter’s film uses juxtaposition to effectively convey the horror of the situation in which we now find ourselves.
On the other hand, the film offers commentary on the magnificent powers of visual art. The most moving sequences of the film feature Souza discussing what he considers to be his favorites out of the photographs he took during the Obama presidency, and viewers will notice a common trend that these are not the most groundbreaking or revelatory images, but rather the ones that captured the humanity and empathy displayed by President Obama in his actions.
Of course, Porter largely allows Souza and his work to speak for himself. Apart from the interviews and archive footage to provide necessary professional or political context, the film is mostly composed of images shot by Souza himself, accompanied by voiceover taken from a moving speech he had given. And it’s a storytelling method that really fits the material.
It’s obvious that there was a bit of a rush placed on the film in order to make sure that it was ready for an election year premiere, but for the most part, it isn’t too distracting. The only portion of the film that feels somewhat out-of-place is a tacked-on message about President Trump’s handling of the current crises in which we find ourselves, which really runs counter to the feeling of hope that permeates through the rest of the film. Even though we’re going through a rough time, not all leaders are this way, so we must come together to stand up for that in which we believe.
It seems that every election year there is a slew of documentaries that come out in an attempt to inspire voters to act in one way or the other, and Dawn Porter’s The Way I See It is undoubtedly one of the more effective of the batch. Well-made and engaging, this film is one that will actually make the American public think about our political climate.
The Way I See It debuts as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11. The festival runs September 10-19 and offers a blend of in-person and virtual (geoblocked to Canada) screenings.
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