Earnest, well-meaning but not entirely dramatic recounting of the New York Times investigation into Weinstein
Director: Maria Schrader
Cast: Carey Mulligan (Megan Twohey), Zoe Kazan (Jodi Kantor), Patricia Clarkson (Rebecca Corbett), Andre Braugher (Dean Baquet), Jennifer Ehle (Laura Madden), Samantha Morton (Zelda Perkins), Ashley Judd (Herself), Zach Grenier (Irwn Reiter), Peter Friedman (Lanny Davis), Angela Yeoh (Rowena Chiu)
In 2017, the New York Times published revelations about Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein that shocked the world. Weinstein had used his position to force his sexual attentions on anyone from aspiring actresses to employees, with a rap sheet of crimes ranging from gropes to rape. It shook Hollywood to its core. She Said is the dramatization of the investigation carried out by reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) who sought out the victims, won their trust and pushed the story through despite threats of legal action.
She Said is a worthy, well-meaning film. It has moments of genuine power and its recreation of the testimony of the victims is tragic and heart-rending. But yet… I didn’t find it dramatic. I was left wondering, why did this true story of journalistic tenacity not carry the same impact as Spotlight or All the President’s Men?
Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t really cover this story as an investigation. There isn’t the sense of facts slowly emerging to form a horrifying picture, or one small incident ballooning into an earth-shattering scandal. Instead, Twohey and Kantor are certain they have the basic facts from the start, with the film being instead a reveal of how many cases there are, rather than an expose of a wrong. While this is still important, it isn’t necessarily always dramatic and, eventually, She Said starts to feel every minute of its two-hour-plus run time.
The real focus of the film probably should have been the journalists’ determined work to win the trust of the principal witnesses – in particular Jennifer Ehle’s Laura Madden, whose whole life has been partially in the shadow of Weinstein’s assault in the 90s. Kantor – played with an empathetic richness by Zoe Kazan – worked night and day to encourage these women to bring their stories to the public. Instead, the film gets distracted with trying to cover too much, both the famous and the unknown victims, and the peripheral presence of Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd (playing herself) unbalance the movie away from the difficult, challenging – but more dramatically rewarding – work exploring office workers called into meetings to “massage” their gross boss.
It’s a shame the focus gets pulled away from these unknown women, who were little more than teenagers when Weinstein abused them in the 90s, since the sequences where they tell their stories are the ones that carry the most impact. There are superb cameo appearances from a trio of great actors. Ehle is superb as a woman resigned to trying to put things behind her, Morton brilliant as another prickling with rage and resentment, and Yeoh very good as a woman who never really managed to process her trauma. The careful, respectful, but deeply sad recounting of these women’s experiences by this trio are the film’s highlights.
Too much of the rest of the film gets bogged down in editorial procedure and the flat collecting of facts. It’s a bad sign when the film has to continuously state the “danger” the characters are facing while investigating and how every wall has ears. While Weinstein was a horrible man, terrifyingly powerful within his industry, I find it a stretch when (unchallenged) a character fears Weinstein will have him killed. I can’t see Weinstein hiring a hitman or utilising the sort of espionage techniques that would make the FBI jealous.
The film also struggles to get to grips with the depressing limits to any struggle for justice in the field of sexual harassment and assault. It starts by depicting Twohey’s investigation into Trump’s “locker room” pussy-grabbing “banter”, which peters out into a total failure to have any real impact at all. While the film suggests this as a motivating factor for the journalists to “get it right” this time, it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the limits of #metoo. It’s clearly very different to get Hollywood to clean out its house, compared to taking on someone with real power. Equally, the film gives no space to attempting to understand why Lisa Bloom, who represented victims of Bill O’Reilly and Trump, went to town defending Weinstein. There are interesting topics to explore here, but She Said wants to simplify its narrative down to goodies and baddies.
Time is also given over to the journalist’s home lives, none of which adds much to the overall narrative. Kantor’s relationship with a 10-year-old daughter just beginning to understand words like “rape” never quite solidifies into a thematic motivator. Twohey’s struggles with post-natal depression are bravely raised, but effectively disappear from the film (which makes me feel even a feminist film is squeamish about saying anything except motherhood is the dream for all women).
The final arc gets equally slightly bogged down in the fact-checking procedure. At times, the film has a little too much of a documentary feel, as if drama might have got in the way of the message. Despite this, there are some very good performances, with Kazan and Mulligan concealing mounting outrage under professional, dispassionate cool (Mulligan gets an outburst at a harassing bar patron, which does feel like too much of a “for your consideration” moment), even if we get little sense of who they are as people.
She Said is a very worthy look at a seismic news story, which never quite translates its coverage of impactful events into a truly compelling narrative.