From Fly on the Wall to Instagram Activist

14 Sep

The Way I See It posterAfter the last week and a half of news — heck, the last four years of news — the arrival of the new film The Way I See It serves as a welcome reminder of how things used to be.

Not that we needed it, of course. But Dawn Porter’s documentary provides a bright and enjoyable look back at the Barack Obama presidency through the eyes of former Official White House Photographer Pete Souza. Like Souza’s active Instagram account, in which he trolls the current president* by sharing photos from his predecessor’s term, the film celebrates what we had and makes viewers long for a simpler time when our leader was a more noble sort of person.

The Way I See It Souza ObamaTo be sure, the film — a documentary adaptation of Souza’s best-selling book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents — is a bit of a nostalgia trip, and it covers a lot of ground we’re already familiar with. But it widens the lens, providing a look at the unique role of White House photographer from someone who has served in that capacity twice, for two of the most iconic presidents in modern American History: Obama and Ronald Reagan. More important, in telling Souza’s story, the movie illustrates, in engaging fashion, how he transformed from a highly respected and impartial photojournalist to an unexpected and unassuming, but popular, activist.

I suspect that, by now, based on this description, you already know whether you want to see this movie or not. And no doubt, my views on the film are colored and enhanced by the fact that I’m an Obama fan.

Here’s the thing, though: While the film does play to its target audience (including with a Bruce Springsteen song playing over the opening credits and Souza’s wearing of a Pod Save America t-shirt in one interview), and at times, it does feel like you’re watching a greatest-hits reel of the Obama presidency, The Way I See It is more concerned with revealing how important it is to have an impartial, objective professional like Souza in this role, and why Souza’s photographs from his time covering Obama continue to have such power and meaning.

And the film is not one-sided. The fact that it covers Souza’s time with Regan is just one example of that.

As explained early on, the assignment of the White House photographer is simply to visually document the presidency for posterity. It should be someone who can be invisible and can blend into the background. Souza shares that his experience as a journalist (with the Chicago Tribune, among other publications) informed his approach to the job during both of his times in the White House; he saw himself as a historian with a camera, there to collect the “best photographic archive of a president that had ever been done,” not to serve as a PR operative there to help build the president’s brand.

And yet, the president’s comfort with the camera can blur those lines, presenting opportunities and challenges. The Way I See It includes an amusing scene where Regan directs Souza during a staged photo shoot with Regan’s wife, Nancy. The film also shares that Regan’s administration was always conscious of the backdrops for his photos, and positioned photographers accordingly to get the best shots.

The Way I See ItObama, of course, had a real comfort with a photographer trailing him, but he understood the importance of Souza’s job. As a result, Souza received unprecedented access to take photos, allowing him to capture “real moments of real history” authentically — as opposed to the current administration, which often stages photos after the fact. (“Post moments of post history,” as Souza calls them.) Equally important: Souza was able to capture what Obama was like as a husband, a father, and a human being.

The film covers the fact that Obama’s was no ordinary presidency, and that part of why Souza’s photographs continue to mean so much to so many is that they show an America that’s inclusive of different races, genders, and viewpoints — one that’s not reflected in the photos taken by the White House today.

Through talking-head interviews with historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Obama administration alumni like Ben Rhodes and Samantha — plus Souza himself, of course — we learn the context behind some of the photographer’s most notable shots, and see that the inspirational nature of Obama’s personality meant that nobody in his administration could truly sit on the sidelines.

Ultimately, the film explains how the legacy of Souza’s time covering Regan and especially Obama is the realization that it’s possible to make a difference, but you have to care. You can’t just be a fly on the wall. And that we, as citizens, are missing something when we don’t have someone like Souza documenting what’s happening inside the White House. “History will suffer as a result,” Souza says.

In the age of YouTube, when everyone has a camera in their pocket, Souza’s work continues to provoke an emotional response because of the way his photos appear to stop time, capturing the empathy and true leadership of our former president in a genuine way. The Way I See It takes us behind the camera and allows us to relive a better, more optimistic time, when the presidency was guided by the integrity of purpose, and encourages each viewer to do what they can so we can have that kind of leader again some time soon.

I’m giving this movie a B+.

The Way I See It will be in select theaters starting September 18, before making its debut on MSNBC commercial-free on October 9.

One Response to “From Fly on the Wall to Instagram Activist”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The 2020 Happiness Project | Martin's Musings - September 14, 2020

    […] September 14 I’m always happy when I’m able to publish a blog post, as I did today with my review of The Way I See It. […]

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