By Leah Greenblatt
September 17, 2020 at 03:06 PM EDT
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Lawrence Jackson/The White House

As an official White House photographer to Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Pete Souza spent years playing silent witness to history. And then somewhere in the post-election shockwaves of 2017, he took his finger off the mute button — his wryly juxtaposed social-media posts becoming mana to legions of Trump-averse citizens still mourning the changing of the guard.

One wildly popular Instagram and a pair of handsome coffee-table books later, his story has become the subject of a flawed but galvanizing documentary by filmmaker Dawn Porter, in theaters Friday (and premiering on MSNBC Oct. 9). It’s billed as a sort of Tale of Two Souzas — a career divided between, in his own words “the most iconic Republican president of our generation, and then the most iconic Democrat President of our generation.”

His time with the former, though, while clearly impactful, was briefer and ultimately less intimate than his years with the latter. So it’s Obama who tends to dominate the narrative, from his early days as the star freshman Senator from Illinois (when Souza was first assigned to photograph him) to the global highlight reel of his eight-year term.

Other talking heads drop in, including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, but the voice is largely Souza’s, and he’s a winning storyteller: warm, humorous, gently reflective. But the message he returns to over and over is a simple one; that character, empathy, and dignity in the nation’s highest office matter far more than any party affiliation.

He found those qualities in both of his most famous subjects, and Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble) shows, largely through archival videos, the private, human side of Ronald and Nancy that Souza got to know without excusing certain key failings of that presidency, including the Iran-Contra affair and Reagan's painful reluctance to address the burgeoning crisis of HIV-AIDS.

It feels like a lost opportunity that the film doesn’t do the same for Obama, effectively reducing a brilliant, complicated man to soft-focus hagiography. The portions focused on him can seem oddly like postdated campaign videos, a heart-swell of uplift and achievement with only glancing acknowledgment of the enormous challenges he faced.

What it does have in happy excess is Souza’s affable presence, and his remarkable trove of images. That makes The Way I See It feel less like strict documentary than a sort of soothing balm for viewers scalded to the ends of their hair by the current state of politics — and in that sense, what a sweet, if sadly temporary relief it is. B+

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