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Review: Nobody misses dignity in the White House more than Obama photographer Pete Souza

President Obama with chief White House photographer Pete Souza on Feb. 18, 2016, from the documentary "The Way I See It."
(Lawrence Jackson / White House)

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Pete Souza seems like a real nice guy. He’s smart, funny and good at his job, which from 2009 until early 2017 was chief official White House photographer under President Obama. He’s one of those people who’s interesting because he’s interested in everything around him. If “The West Wing” had come along later, he would have been the basis for a great character.

The documentary “The Way I See It” was directed by Dawn Porter and inspired by Souza’s two bestselling books, “Obama, an Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs” and “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents,” the titles of which speak volumes. Though it goes adrift at times, the film lands at a moment when you may need some uplift and provides a welcome reminder of what executive dignity looks like.

Now 65, Souza achieved notoriety in an unlikely way in 2017 when he began posting photographic rebuttals on Instagram to Donald Trump’s Twitter posts. In doing so, he mined a vein of humor even his wife Patti didn’t know existed and connected to an audience that reached 2.3 million followers.

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We learn in the film that Souza was skeptical of the White House’s new occupant from the day the Obamas handed over the keys. Souza never saw himself as overtly political, but something about Trump awakened a heretofore unseen side. He never intended to be a critic and didn’t even know what “throwing shade” meant when he initially did it.

Though not strictly a biography, “The Way I See It” does reveal elements of Souza’s life that have had a profound impact on his worldview. Interviews with his family and colleagues at the White House add context to Souza’s perspective.

Pete Souza, former photographer for President Obama.
(Lauren Justice)
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Growing up, the New Bedford, Mass., native had little interest in anything but sports and didn’t discover photography until his undergrad years at Boston University. Souza then went to Kansas State University, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications before launching his career at small Kansas newspapers in Chanute and Hutchinson.

Following a stint as a photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune, Souza found himself working as an official photographer in the Ronald Reagan White House in 1983. Souza remembers Reagan fondly, respecting his professionalism even when disagreeing with his policies, especially the response to the AIDS epidemic. Nancy Reagan requested that Souza photograph her husband’s funeral in 2004.

Souza takes some delight in having photographed who he terms the most iconic Republican and Democratic presidents of recent vintage. This experience adds credibility to his observation that Trump was simply not up to the challenge of performing the duties Souza witnessed — in fact, memorialized — Reagan and Obama doing. His objections to the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are based as much on character and work ethic as they are on policy.

With Obama, Souza had an unprecedented level of access, and the film shares that with its glimpses behind the scenes of the presidency. Souza saw himself as a “historian with a camera” and prides himself in showing Obama the man, the husband and the father as well as the politician. While Souza makes clear at the beginning of “The Way I See It” that he had no problem leaving his job of eight years — on duty 24/7, 365 days a year — he dearly misses having a competent, honorable leader at the helm of the nation. It’s what former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power calls “integrity of purpose.”

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President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House in 2010.
(Pete Souza / White House)

But there are moments in the documentary when Porter, who also directed the recent “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” loses focus. It’s understandable when her subject is accustomed to not being the story, but when “The Way I See It” veers into hagiography for Obama, strains for relevance with footage and images from recent events or over-emotes with songs when a simple score would have sufficed, the film feels less authentic. It’s full of lump-in-the-throat moments that don’t require enhancement.

“The Way I See It” is at its upbeat best when Souza is recalling how he got a particular shot or detailing the back story to some of the more iconic images of the Obama years. It’s the public and the private side of the White House. Exactly the way Souza saw it.

‘The Way I See It’

Rated: PG-13, for brief strong language

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Sept. 18, Regency Directors Cut Cinema at Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel; and in general release where theaters are open; Oct. 16 on MSNBC

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