‘How can we miss you when you won’t go away?” political podcaster Yvette Carnell joked two years ago when Barack Obama began his comeback tour by making sideline pronouncements about the state of the nation after his brief retirement. Now the comeback is official, with two new Kool-Aid-drinker Obama hagiographies to prove it.
Obama Dream and The Way I See It are released in theaters and on streaming like promotional tie-ins to accompany the publication of Obama’s latest literary memoir, The Promised Land. Both films provide audiovisual aid to the 800-plus-page book. Reliance on pictorial persuasion in these docs brings to mind how friendly the media coverage of Obama has always been, in contrast to the media hostility aimed at George W. Bush and Donald Trump. It’s the B.O. and A.O. media — journalism Before Obama and After Obama.
Almost four years since the Obama administration walked from the White House to its Kalorama bunker near the White House, these documentaries remind us of what that media thrall from 2008 to 2016 was like. (Full disclosure: I had to devote a large section of my book Make Spielberg Great Again to Obama’s debilitating artistic influence.)
Obama Dream was made by Italian filmmaker Francesco Pavarati, who followed the 2008 campaign stops, traveling 20,000 miles from Denver through 14 states to Election Night, giving the perspective of an infatuated outsider. Pavarati is astounded by the candidate and aghast at America itself. He offers fever-dream imagery of a nation as bewitched and enraptured as he was and apparently still is.
There’s no irony in Pavarati’s extended collage, which makes one think about the difference between this portrayal of demagogue-induced fervor and the insight that Marco Bellocchio brought to Vincere (2010), a modern look at Italy’s mass hypnosis under Benito Mussolini, the double vision of demigod and monster, plus the individual experiences of those most intimately related to that beloved dictator. Pavarati hasn’t learned from Bellocchio, so he is doomed to repeat history’s mistakes.
Although Obama Dream confesses its deluded perspective, this comes with misunderstanding American culture and politics. Pavarati reiterates stump-speech rhetoric through dazed images intended to “document” America on the verge of ecstasy and scenes of “great emotional and political participation.” This is as much self-delusion as it is reporting.
But The Way I See It really is about emotional and political participation — only from a source who is no longer impartial but in fact rabidly partisan. Obama is the film’s idol, but his image is almost eclipsed by the film’s parallel subject, Pete Souza, the former official chief White House photographer who held that position during both the Reagan and Obama administrations.
Those two executives (No. 40 and No. 44) actually had little in common except for Souza’s admiration; he confers Reagan’s aura and articulacy upon Obama through his own personal obsession. (His approach is no different from the way Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair power-worshiped Ronald and Nancy Reagan during the Eighties.) Fact is, Souza published two books about Reagan while Obama (five Souza books) provided him with an assured post–White House career, and this film is part of that cottage industry.
Directed by Dawn Porter and produced by actress Laura Dern, a typical liberal sycophant, The Way I See It showcases Hollywood’s hive mind. Porter, Dern and Souza align to worship No. 44 while scorching President Trump. (Souza repeats the vicious allegation of the Biden campaign and other Trump foes that Trump advocates white supremacy, a claim unfounded except in Souza’s fevered imagination, his projected Obama nightmare.) This is typical of biased presidential historians who can’t get past their own egos. Souza fawningly recalls Obama, musing, “I thought who is this man? How does he deal with crisis? I thought: Leadership. Character. Empathy.” But The Way I See It becomes reprehensible when Souza goes on his attack tour, indicating that he learned arrogance and divisiveness from his tenure in the Obama White House.
Ironically, Souza says his “job was to make authentic photographs,” yet “authentic” doesn’t mean honest reporting, just official. Souza’s two best-known portraits — Obama and a black child in the Oval Office, and the Situation Room photo where the White House staff witnesses the killing of Bin Laden on video — both look staged, or else like the on-set photos issued in movie press kits.
In his work and in this film, Souza conflates idolatry with history. He eagerly plays to his lecture-tour audiences, who are seen laughing, applauding, enjoying the same groupthink-hoodwink as in Pavarati’s film. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin naïvely opines, “Photographs break down the idea that these people are somehow different from us.” But Souza’s images of Obama glad-handing constituents and grinning with other celebrities prove otherwise. This doc captures the transformation of the American polity into fans. Obama’s former deputy national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, boasts that the Oval Office black-boy shot “stands for how kids will see themselves differently forever.” That’s standard white liberal condescension. Meeting the president of the United States should be a big deal for anyone.
Pavarati and Souza show no journalistic instinct or skepticism. These Obama docs are worse than mere hagiography. Seeking justification in political alliance and culture-wide consensus, they implicitly encourage contempt for all outside their circle, for those who think differently or who respond to the subject with anything less than obeisance. The smiley-face icon in these films don’t suggest a promised land’s messiah but something so subjective that it’s close to the real face of division.