Films that fictionalize factual tales will forever flirt with a formidable question: Would this story be better served by a straight-ahead documentary? The answer is almost always “yes.” But She Said more freely tempts fate by dropping a scene exactly as it would look in a documentary about the New York Times’ exposure of film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s legacy of rape and sexual assault against women.
The moment involves a recording made by one of Weinstein’s victims, on which the Miramax Films co-founder and producer of nearly 300 films insists the woman give in to his lecherous whims. The audio plays while cinematographer Natasha Braier floats her camera down empty hallways of the hotel where this conversation took place — a conversation fully transcribed in onscreen subtitles, with nary a one of the film’s many famous faces to be found.
Aside from the scene’s jarring, disjointed nature (which visually resembles nothing else in the film), it also intrudes upon later scenes of interpersonal drama. At this point in the story, Weinstein’s patterns and patois are more pertinent than the specifics of his speech. To have not only heard it but read it robs the power of a moment when Jennifer Ehle (as Laura Madden, one of Weinstein’s many victims) outlines the precise language of Weinstein’s predation as she experienced it.
When it comes to the documentary question, She Said is not the exception that proves the rule. However, it also has a much thornier question with which to contend — namely, do we need this movie in any form? As my Indiana Film Journalists Association colleague Emily Wheeler noted after the screening: From an ideological perspective, what has changed fundamentally, and for the better, about the way women are treated in Hollywood circles? What exactly is She Said celebrating by dint of its very existence?
Sure, there was a national recoil of disgust for vile treatment of women amid and after the 2016 election (briefly touched upon in the prologue by a vocal cameo from Saturday Night Live performer James Austin Johnson). Yes, a court pinned Weinstein for the crimes he perpetrated and put him behind bars. But this is a week in which we learned just how Bill Murray was left unchecked for decades to cultivate the inappropriate behavior he internalized as no big deal. It’s also a week in which Mel Gibson — a known verbal abuser of women who was snagging comeback Oscar nominations at the start of Weinstein’s downfall — was cleared as a witness to testify against Weinstein in another rape trial (this one in Los Angeles).
In adapting the New York Times reportage by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey and Rebecca Corbett (and Kantor & Twohey’s subsequent book), She Said regards the Publish button like a pressed trigger on a package of C4. But what monolith of male misdeeds did they topple, exactly? Director Maria Schrader’s film achieves decent propulsion during its discussions and dissections of when and how to publish the work of Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan), and there are plenty of compelling performances here. But She Said largely amounts to a slow, steady parade of real women’s words spoken by talented actresses — Samantha Morton here, Ashley Judd there (as herself) and Ehle — the patron saint of propping up generally thankless studio efforts — everywhere in nearly all of the film’s finest moments.
Sparked by accusatory tweets from actress Rose McGowan, Kantor works the Weinstein story — which becomes a double act with Twohey when the latter returns from a maternity leave made miserable by her postpartum depression. (Serving as the pair’s editor and portrayed by Patricia Clarkson, Corbett gets credit from Twohey and Kantor as the third woman on the story.) They face the usual brick walls and quick calls that deny comment, but Kantor and Twohey persist despite difficulties getting any victim to go on the record. Written in the dirt shaken from the money he used for payoffs, Weinstein’s code of silence is considerable, and there’s a supposition that Weinstein’s flunkies will somehow simply kill the story as they have in the past any time others have picked up the trail.
When She Said brings out Judd playing herself, references to Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner of Girls fame, and Gwyneth Paltrow vocal impersonations, you might wonder if the film, and the investigation, will get a little starstruck. Twohey starts to wonder that, too. Fame does not discriminate against the dignity Weinstein took with impunity or excuse his actions, but it does afford a considerably larger financial cushion. Are these really the people with whom the Times needs to be speaking? In pursuit of linchpin sources, and finding them at a point where they have nothing left to lose by talking, Kantor and Twohey eventually hit the doorsteps of those more easily devastated. These are the assistants and professionals unrecognized by anyone other than Weinstein and only then as marks for his madness. It is for these women that Kantor and Twohey must build a large-enough lifeboat should they all decide to leap together and go on the record.
Because they have scattered to corners of the globe and Kantor gets the assignment for international travel, Kazan gets the lion’s share of these complex, contentious confrontations. They play like trials by fire for Kantor to gain perspective on the gravity and humanity of the story she’s trying to write, and Kazan precisely pinpoints the intersection of her character’s inherently divergent notions of human empathy and reportorial inducement. Kazan also shares a few especially fine scenes with veteran character actor Zach Grenier that artfully address the anxieties of exploring evil that exceeds comprehension.
Twohey’s spot in the narrative is generally reserved for putting the screws to Weinstein’s collaborators and enablers, most prominently an attorney of his played by Peter Friedman. If Friedman looks familiar, he plays Frank on HBO’s Succession, which doesn’t help She Said feel less like TV. Decent TV but still TV.
Amid Mulligan’s usual glottal throttle to suppress her British accent, the script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) affords her only the most scattershot, sloppy reminders of Twohey’s domestic concerns; it’s almost as if the part were initially written for a less prominent actress and the production scrambled to find more for Mulligan after she was cast. (Brief glimpses into each woman’s home life also largely consist of prototypically positive husbands and precocious kids.)
Like any modern film about journalism, the closest comparison points aim to be Spotlight and All the President’s Men. The ensemble never clicks as it did in Spotlight (although Clarkson and Andre Braugher, as Times executive editor Dean Baquet, are welcome veteran hands). And despite a few meetings set at the Times offices at night for no reason, She Said doesn’t match the creeping, often nocturnal paranoia of ATPM.
As Kantor and Twohey’s pieces lean toward publication, She Said sparks to life with understated newsroom camaraderie; be still my heart, there is even a shot of the copy editor deleting an extra space near a comma. But She Said takes its title quite literally as a very talky, traditional, and two-hours-plus jawn of just the facts. It’s not bad. It’s just not much more than you’d find by reading the existing coverage.
She Said screened at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival. It is scheduled to open in wide release on Friday, Nov. 18.