The Way I See It–What’s Before Your Eyes

The Way I See It, a documentary film released by MSNBC on October 16, 2020, narrates the career of  the former Chief Official White House Photographer, Pete Souza.  He covered  two of the most popular US presidents of the past fifty years:  Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. 

Only in his mid-twenties when he was invited to be the White House official photographer for Ronald Reagan, Souza admits he wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s politics but  came to admire Reagan’s loving relationship with Nancy. The Way I See It zooms in on the couple holding hands after the First Lady’s surgery.  Souza humanizes his subject matter with a lens that exudes emotion.  But The Way I See It is all about the Obamas.

When Souza meets President Obama for the first time at the White House, Obama chuckles:  “We’re going to have some fun.” And that is exactly what happens.  Remarkably,  Souza captures intimate and tender moments: e.g. Barack coaching daughter Sasha’s middle-school basketball team “as if they were the NBA.” But Souza also documents what are now iconic images–  Obama, Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking officials riveted to the screen as they witness the raid on Osama bin Laden; Obama shedding tears with Sandy Hook parents after the massacre;  hugging a severely handicapped soldier   after his return from the Middle East.  

The seemingly invisible camera of Souza’s captures eight years of the Obamas’ lives, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs.  Evolving into an exceptionally close relationship between photographer and the photographed, Souza profoundly and brilliantly encapsulates emotion in each of his shots.  In a lighthearted scene, the viewer is treated to  Souza being encouraged to marry his partner of eleven years, and being offered a wedding ceremony in the Rose Garden with President Obama serving as the officiant for an inducement.  Other humorous clips:  when Souza claims Obama’s actual favorite moment of his presidency  is  blocking Reggie Love’s shot on the basketball court; or an impromptu snowball fight and snow-angel matchup between Obama and his daughters. 

Souza is seen in 2017, when his tenure as White House photographer has ended, photographing birds in the woods near his home.  For an apparently self-effacing man accustomed to drawing attention to the person in front of the lens, not behind it, Souza will soon become the unanticipated center of attention for a new cohort of fans.  Appalled by Trump’s lack of empathy and his policy of refusing to allow candid photos, Souza begins an  Instagram account that evolves into a  political commentary. Souza himself seems surprised at the turn his life has taken, when he starts “throwing shade” (the name of his second book of photographs)  at Trump  by pairing the tweets from the current POTUS with contrasting photos of Obama, gaining more than 2.6 million Instagram followers, and becoming something of a cult celebrity. 

Scrupulously avoiding politics until the onset of the Trump years, Souza shows us a glimpse of what life was like in the Trump White House: candid documentation replaced by staged self-adulation. If  you’re feeling nostalgic,  maybe The Way I See It will be comforting.  Otherwise, if you remember a time when the US president behaved like an adult with integrity, not a narcissistic delinquent, bring out the kleenex.

Availability:  MSNBC and Amazon Prime.

“Flesh and Blood”–Deadly Sins

Don’t be fooled.  This dysfunctional family gives the appearance of happiness and love,  but Flesh and Blood disguises a murder.  This mystery-thriller set in the sunshine and warm beaches of West Sussex is a multigenerational psychodrama. The gentle surf and sunny skies can lull the residents into a false sense of comfort and security.  Flesh and Blood immediately goes to the darkly secretive interior family drama that throws shade on the murdered. Wisely keeping the identity of the victim hidden,–although the obscured victim is wheeled into an ambulance in the opening scene–viewers are left guessing which of the two main characters was murdered. 

The major narrative is an affluent widow’s new romance at the age of almost–seventy.  Retired Dr. Mark Kenneally seems the perfect romantic partner for her:  warm, understanding, and completely devoted to her.  On Vivien’s  seventieth birthday, family secrets and betrayal surface in a perfect storm.  Vivien (the beautiful Francesca Annis), in pursuing her desire for companionship and adventure eighteen months after her husband’s passing.  Disappointed,  she  is confronted with her adult kids’ disapproval, envy, and rivalry over their expected inheritance.   The ugly lives of each of the three adult children impact how they feel towards their mother’s newfound joy and passion.  All three are deeply suspicious of Dr. Mark Keneally.

To increase the tensions further, there is the septuagenarian neighbor, Mary (Imelda Staunton in an impeccably nuanced performance).  She is timid, lonely and living her life through the seemingly perfect family she watches with binoculars from her kitchen window. But Mary is uncomfortably crossing boundaries of identity between herself and Vivien.  Having no close family of her own,–her husband gone and her young son dead– she has been a second mother, not solely a caregiver,  to Vivien’s three children.  Mary’s passive-aggressive helpfulness eggs on  the adult children’s conflict with their mother’s romantic relationship with the doctor.   Vivien seems to have sincere affection for Mary but Mary appears unhealthily attached to Vivien.

As for Mark:  Is he hiding something?  Is he really what he seems?  

In this four-episode whodunit, we see the police detective interview the three adult children and the neighbor.  However, not all of the background information they provide on the days leading up to the murder quite match the truths the viewer is shown.

Highly entertaining and clever–a great evening’s worth of binge-viewing on Masterpiece Theater, or relish this mystery thriller in smaller doses.  For those who like Flesh and Blood, you’ll also enjoy the novel Things Unsaid.

Note:  Available on pbs.org under Masterpiece Theater programs. Not to be confused with Hulu’s original series: Flesh and Blood–Into the Dark.

“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel and unempathetic?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .

“Van der Valk”– Going Dutch

Van der Valk PBS series

This quirky three-episode police procedural on Masterpiece Theater follows a  sullen, street-smart Dutch detective, Piet Van der Valk (Marc Warner), who  navigates the seedier side of lively Amsterdam.   Each two-hour episode of Van der Valk involves a  distinct crime that can be watched on its own. 


Solving convoluted crimes using astute human observation and inspired detection, Van der Valk is successful, in part, due to the support of  Inspector Lucienne Hassell (Maimie McCoy) and rookie Officer Job Cloovers (Elliot Barnes Worrell).  Cloovers is a brilliant,  nerdy intern who is barely tolerated by the sometimes overbearing Van der Valk. 

Since Van Der Valk investigates with little regard for police ethics or policies, his exasperated boss, Chief Inspector Dahlman (Emma Fielding), is often on the verge of firing him. His partner, Lucienne,  as second-in-command, tolerates his antics and supports him, and suspects he is  possibly deeply damaged, sometimes revealing touching moments. 

The first episode, “Love in Amsterdam”, deals with a political campaign pitting an alt-right wing politician against a progressive, popular candidate for mayor.  With two murders involving his campaign workers and a surprise romantic connection, the progressive candidate’s pending scandal may cause the end of his career.  

In the second episode, “Only in Amsterdam,” a Muslim worker at an addiction clinic is found dead. Evidence
 from a religious book of erotic rituals connects her murder to a Catholic nun and two academics who specialize in this arcane religious cult. 

In episode three, “Death in Amsterdam”,  a fashion vlogger with a number of enemies is found dead.  Cloovers takes a particular interest in the case since he follows that vlogger’s posts.  In this finale, we see why 

Inspector  Van Der Valk is irritating and unlikable, a guarded cipher no more. His proclivity towards wrong-headed   romantic hook-ups also gets some closure, although maybe a bit later than the mini-series warrants. 

Having Van der Valk’s second lieutenant, Lucienne, be a lesbian police officer, not his romantic interest (as in the majority of male-female detective teams on screen and in mysteries) makes for a more original and idiosyncratic relationship between the two.  And in spite of–perhaps because — they see each other’s flaws,  the two detectives feel even more respect and affection for each other.

The red herrings are often subtle with clues that do not reveal the perpetrator, taking the reviewer on a tangent to another purported murderer.  While Van der Walk has wonderful twisted plots, sometimes it is difficult  to follow the path of clues, with many characters’  names to remember and clues stacked more heavily in the second half of each episode than the first.  As a consequence of clue-stacking during the last half-hour, the middle of each episode sometimes sags as the pacing slows.

An entertaining, challenging set of mysteries to solve,   the second and third episodes of Van der Valk are more cleverly constructed than the first.

Availability:  On pbs.org