What does it mean to be presidential? In the year 2020, it’s a term that has become tarnished by scandals and lies. A quick google search, however, describes it as “having a bearing or demeanor befitting a president; dignified and confident.” But for a more in-depth understanding of the ideal characteristics of the person in charge of America’s highest officer, a great place to start is Dawn Porter’s moving new documentary The Way I See It.
Told from the perspective of Pete Souza, the former official White House photographer for presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, The Way I See It is an inside look into the halls of power. With unparalleled access to America’s leaders throughout their personal and professional lives, it sets out to illuminate the importance of Souza’s role in documenting history. As such, a fascinating profile of both Souza and the presidency – Obama’s in particular – emerges.
There’s an old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words and indeed, Souza’s images speak volumes. From Nancy Reagan’s heartache at her husband’s funeral, to the tears and smiles of joy which greeted Obama all over the world, Souza’s portfolio is absolutely incredible. Indeed, as we see him explain the context behind the photos in a promotional talk for his book “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” you may feel inclined to pull out your credit card. In a culture and media landscape seemingly determined to pivot to video, the film stands as a testament to the power of the still image.
While Souza’s work does speak for itself, Porter further amplifies these snapshots of history with insightful archival footage and interviews with individuals directly and indirectly involved in the White House administration. In doing so, we get an even deeper sense of who Obama was as a human being, family man and leader. Furthermore, it reminds us of the many hot-button issues Obama encountered during his two terms, including health care, same sex marriage and most soberingly, gun control.
Admittedly, Porter arguably leans into hagiography as the film showcases Obama’s with the aid of sentimental music choices. Likewise, Souza’s immense adoration is never in doubt. After decades embracing his role as an omnipresent but quiet fly in the wall, his transformation into an outspoken critic of the present day White House is particularly telling of the stark contrast between leadership styles.
Ultimately, if you weren’t already angry or disappointed over the pervasive lack of empathy in today’s divided America, then The Way I See It will probably provoke those feelings. In paying tribute to photojournalists and leaders who act with humanity rather than selfish egotism, it reminds us of the virtues needed to make the world a better place. As Americans head to the polls to select the ideal candidate who fits their definition of “presidential,” this exploration of the iconic Reagan and Obama presidencies proves to be essential viewing.