It’s Tempting to Roll Your Eyes She Said, the film adaptation of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s 2019 book of the same name on their investigation of Harvey Weinstein.
I walked into the film, by unorthodox director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, fearing it felt too self-congratulatory for the diffuse, difficult and ongoing #MeToo movement, wary of another pawn in the inevitable pipeline of screen-based viral content. There was strong potential for it to be, like Hollywood’s #MeToo Time’s Up organization, overwhelmed by the albatross of fame – too focused on Weinstein as a singularly wicked figure, or sunk by distracting impersonations of famous people. Who wants to see an actor turn into Harvey Weinsteineven for the undoubtedly tense and cinematic moment when the producer showed up unannounced at the Times office days before publishing as the latest bullying tactic?
Weaker films would go all-out for such drama, but Schrader and Lenkiewicz have crafted a sensitive, emotionally shrewd film that avoids such pitfalls. This is a solid recent history faithful to its sources – respectful even, as Nicholas Brittell’s full-bodied and disturbing score underlines.
Schrader and cinematographer Natasha Braier effectively blend nutritious literal realism (Kantor googling photos of famous actors, a browser with over 30 open tabs, The New York Times’ content management system, the cafeteria of the Times) with an emotional realism, formed on the collective “she” of the title. To wit: The film doesn’t open in 2016 New York but in Ireland, 1992, where a young Laura Madden stumbles across a film set and into a docile, enthusiastic entry-level job. Cut to photo of her running down the street in tears, her face stricken with horror.
Flashbacks to several younger women weave throughout the film in short powerful snippets, effectively fusing the requisite porn skill of a newsroom drama with the many emotional rivers flowing beneath.
The work sequences, in which Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan) call and call and show up unannounced, are indeed satisfying to watch. A sin ProjectorTom McCarthy’s 2015 film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, She Said delivers the dopamine hits of a journalism movie: controlled pacing (the movie is just over two hours long but seems shorter), tactile work, the thrill of the pavement hammered into revelation.
Lenkiewicz’s adaptation mostly sticks to the book’s investigative timeline: how Kantor, a veteran workplace harassment reporter, was told about Rose McGowan’s account of Harvey Weinstein’s rape after an investigation of the Times successfully unseated Fox News host Bill O’Reilly; how she bonded with Twohey when the latter suffered from postpartum depression (her first child was born between the Donald Trump and Weinstein investigations). How they amassed the coins unofficially – first McGowan, then Ashley Judd (playing herself), then Gwyneth Paltrow (not pictured – good decision) and former assistants bound by NDAs who slammed the door or ignored calls. How they set up the basics: a system of payments and settlements, a culture of fear, an infuriating model of predatory behavior disguised as business meetings. How they dressed, took late-night calls, dotted every i and crossed out every t, liaised with editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Times director Dean Bacquet (Andre Braugher) .
And more effectively, how and why each woman agreed to speak. More than anything else, the scenes that give voice to non-famous sources offer the strongest arguments for a film adaptation, the emotional clarity text or actual public interviews could not provide. Memories of former assistant Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) and Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh), both of whom were linked by early ’90s NDAs, and adult Madden (a devastating Jennifer Ehle) are all a hit. fist. Coupled with flashbacks to their younger, uninjured selves, the three performances convey worry, fear, shame – the instinct to both tell and hide, to Explain, that the book version, let alone the hard evidence-based reporting, could ever communicate.
There is an underlying message in the follow-up stories, the press and the book about the strength of collective witness and solidarity; it is obvious that the work was better when the two reporters joined forces. But at the film level, the power duo works less well. Kazan is the noticeably stiffer performer of the pair, which makes the scenes in which the two reporters work together less seamless than when apart – Mulligan’s delivery as Twohey feels inhabited, combustible, instinctive; Kazan sounds like a script. Likewise, make moments heavy with obvious proclamations such as “this is the system that protects against abuse”.
In its strongest moments, She Said follows the precedent of The wizard, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s 2020 portrait of toxic adjacency at a Weinstein-style production company, allowing audiences to fill in the blanks with well-known information. When that final showdown with Weinstein comes, we only see him in the shadows, from behind; the camera captures the faces of his powerful accomplices – famed attorneys Lisa Bloom and David Boies, prosecutor Linda Fairstein – while zooming in on Twohey’s startling expression: fury, bewilderment, a hint of pity at his unheard-of bloviation.
Like the book, She Said conveys the mountain of turmoil, obstacles, impasses, relationships and uncertainties that underpin a single story – all the work, doubt and strength that we cannot see at first. MeToo’s half-decade has been one of fuzzy, necessarily messy stops and starts; what satisfaction, then, to clearly see its origins.