Pete Souza has had an inside look at Washington politics for decades.
He’s been in the room for countless national crises, meetings with foreign leaders and hundreds of White House press events without anyone ever really knowing his name.
As the official photographer for both the Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama administrations, Souza has seen intimate moments on both sides of the aisle and captured images that serve not only as a remembrance of the leaders he followed, but of the men they were and the history they made.
In a new documentary from director Dawn Porter and the producers of the Oscar-winning film Free Solo, Souza shares an extensive amount of his personal and official photography from the 1980s and 2010s to capture a larger portrait of the American executive branch from the perspective of a largely invisible bystander.
It’s clear from the outset that Souza has a distinct reverence for the office of the President and a close kinship to both of the men he covered who held that position, though his work portraying Obama is covered in more depth than Reagan, a man he covered for less time but still found the stateman’s wonderful humanity and empathy for others.
The visuals of the film are absolutely breathtaking in large part to Souza’s still photography setting the tone and the context for everything to come.
An early photo shown features Obama briefing president-elect Donald Trump on an impending national security emergency while Souza narrates the final day of Obama’s presidency and the transfer of power.
This should relatively innocuous, but the frame of the photo conveys so much. Trump’s signature red tie, a long hallway, the American flag in the background; all of these things symbolizing the transfer of power in a single image reflect instantly so much about the historic moments taking place.
Just before this, Souza captures Trump engaged in conversation with Obama’s running mate, with the soon-to-be former president in the background, beautifully staging the scene of years to come in American politics.
Souza has the eye for where the moments are taking place, how best to capture them unobtrusively and the access to give Americans a revelatory look into the lives of the men serving as commander-in-chief.
There’s an endless assortment of moments like this captured across The Way I See It, often coupled with news reel and video footage of the events to help orient audiences, but Souza’s still images routinely and masterfully supersede their moving counterparts, capturing a moment in time in a way that will leave viewers breathless.
So much of The Way I See It conveys a sense of neutrality or a larger sense of bipartisanship that it becomes somewhat troublesome as Souza uses the film’s preamble and its final moments to make an argument in voting President Trump out of office. This simple fact will keep a broad audience from finishing the film, or more likely, turning it on altogether.
But the problem with making this level of political statement is that it pulls away from capturing authentic American history, one with a reverence and respect for the executive branch that it’s so clear Souza has.
Politics will likely keep The Way I See It in the mix for an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature, an honor the middle 90-minute thoroughly deserves for its intrepid look at the humanity of presidents on both sides of the aisle and one the film’s outer edges probably should disqualify it for.
One of the subjects of the film notes that “a photograph breaks down the idea that these people (U.S. presidents) are somehow different from us” and it’s in the humanity shown through Souza’s images of Reagan and Obama that The Way I See It shows its soul.
An imperfect film with a larger apolitical message about seeing others for who they are as people rather than the ideas they support, there’s too much beauty in the visuals not to give The Way I See It a chance regardless of what side of the aisle viewers are on or how the presidential election turns out.