‘She Said’ review: A technically proficient, too-slick prestige pic
Has enough time passed for us to reflect on the immensity of the Harvey Weinstein story? It’s been five years since New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor uncovered the tip of the iceberg that was the heralded Hollywood producer’s long list of alleged crimes, which included sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Weinstein has since been convicted on some charges, and awaits trial on others. In the months and years that followed the Times expose, the discourse around sexual misconduct was reignited, and many shared their stories of surviving abuse with the resurrected hashtag #MeToo. But this is a moment that we’re still in, navigating the concepts of consent, redemption, and so-called cancel culture. So, is it too soon for She Said?
Screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience, Ida) and director Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) translate Twohey and Kantor’s earth-shaking 2017 article into a docudrama in the vein of Spotlight, the Oscar-winning drama about the Boston reporters who broke the Catholic Church sex abuse conspiracy. As its title suggests, the focus of She Said is not on Weinstein but on the women he victimized and how they used their voices to bring him down. Starring as Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor respectively, Carey Mulligan (Promising Young Woman) and Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) are our polished guides, ushering us through whispered phone calls, fraught interviews, and intense confrontations with victims, enablers, and the abuser himself.
This is an inspiring story with harrowing content, which Lenkiewicz and Schrader are delicate and respectful in unfolding. But are they perhaps too respectful?
How does She Said handle scenes of Weinstein’s assaults?
Credit: Universal Studios
In this regard, Lenkiewicz and Schrader get respect right. Sexual assault and harassment are not made a spectacle in She Said, as it was in the Fox News-centered docudrama Bombshell. Instead, the details of the allegations are shared, not shown.
Sometimes, these retellings play over flashbacks of younger versions of the women speaking, but in none of these flashbacks will violence be shown. Instead, Schrader gives us eerie insert shots of the setting: an abandoned robe alongside a script on a hotel bed, a purse toppled over on a table, feminine clothing in a pile on the floor. Other times, she’ll make us witness to the moments after: a young white woman in tears running down a street, a young Asian woman trembling in a hallway of a hotel. Schrader trusts we don’t need to see what happened to believe these women’s stories.
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This restraint is a virtue of She Said, acknowledging an audience perspective that can understand the weight of Weinstein’s actions without having to witness a re-enactment of them — which may well be triggering to survivors of abuse. Similar restraint is present in depicting Weinstein, a large and bombastic man who used his power and persona to trample people and stories that rose up against his bullying and abuse. His face is never shown in the film. He blusters over a speakerphone, and though at one point an actor appears on screen to play him, only the back of his head is shown. The focus of this scene is how Megan handles being hit with the full force of Harvey’s intimidation. What he actually says is omitted; somber music plays over his bloviating, and the camera pushes past that back of his head to focus fully on Mulligan’s face, resolute and stern.
Meanwhile, his victims are presented in a variety of ways. Many of the recreated interviews within the film happen over the phone. While names like Rose McGowan and Gwyneth Paltrow are dropped, other actresses provide over-the-phone audio performances for these silence-breakers. Several former Miramax staffers are portrayed by celebrated actresses, including Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton. But most impactful is Ashely Judd, appearing as herself in a frank and moving video-call interview, in which she speaks to Weinstein’s behavior and its lasting detriment to her.
Lenkiewicz’s script aims to present each woman within a broader context than her Weinstein connection. We’re welcomed into their homes, we meet their children, we follow them on pivotal doctor visits, and we see them crumble as the worst day of their lives comes barreling back. Schrader trusts in the performances of her cast to ground how horrid Weinstein’s actions were, and her trust is rewarded with portrayals that are righteous in their wrath and heartbreak. Still, I wish she’d made room for mess.
She Said is more a prestige biopic than a newspaper pic.
Credit: Universal Studios
In biopics, there’s a Hollywood tendency to glamorize the subject, glossing over their problematic bits in search of a portrayal that is grand and crowd-pleasing. In newspaper pics — from The Front Page and All The President’s Men to The Paper and Spotlight — the hero journalists are noble but also undeniably quirky. There’s a haphazardness to their appearance or a thrilling frankness to how they talk.
In Spotlight, Mark Ruffalo’s journo spoke as if he might die any moment, and so every syllable had to hit hard and fast. In Zodiac, Robert Downey Jr.’s reporter had an unrepentant swagger that might have gotten him killed but won our hearts for its manic moxie. In The Paper, Michael Keaton seemed Kermit-like in being ever on the verge of a breakdown, and that gave us an enveloping sense of exhilaration of being a part of that newsroom. She Said has no interest in such theatrics, and so there’s a gnawing remoteness that distances us from the thrall of the newsroom.
Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor are both presented as a very specific brand of New York sophisticate femininity: intellectual, unflappable, brunette, preppy but not overly posh. Despite some minor differences (number of children, height, tote bag versus backpack), they are cut from the same cloth. The film even makes a half-hearted joke about this when the two accidentally dress alike (twinsies!) to ambush a source. Sure, Megan is a bit more prone to anger — lashing out at a pestering pick-up artist — while Jodi is more likely to emotionally overshare. But these brief outbursts are the closest thing She Said presents as far as personality flaws. And frankly, both anger and oversharing are pretty reasonable considering the high-stress circumstances.
She Said could benefit from some real-life grubbiness and mess.
Credit: Universal Studios
Perhaps the real Twohey and Kantor are exactly as portrayed here, but frankly, I don’t care. Movies — even docudramas and biopics — are not about truth or accuracy. They’re about telling a compelling story. Where She Said trips up is in its ardent need to play like a prestige biopic, wallowing in the heroes’ noble intentions and important contributions to the world but forgetting that these characters should also be exciting to watch.
The subject is important. Their story is historic. But this doesn’t mean its heroes need to be glossy. She Said could benefit from some messiness. We see these women impressively juggling this around-the-clock investigation that invades their lives, interrupting time with their children, derailing private time with their spouses, waking them in the night with phone calls, but it all lacks the compelling chaos of the newspaper movie. As the film smoothly slides along in crisp gray hallways of the New York Times offices, where adroit editors (Andre Braugher and Patricia Clarkson) are as calm as they are classy, I longed for some texture. She Said suffers from a lack of pressure or tension, and while that could be because we know how this story ends, I think it’s because Megan and Jodi feel too polished to feel real.
Is the problem that it’s too soon to reimagine Twohey and Kantor as characters? Is the movie’s respect for their accomplishments blinding its makers to the quirks that might make them seem human and not fantasies of high-functioning female wrath? Or is it that they are women? Must She Said also do battle with the sexist underpinnings of Hollywood, which allows for an endless variety of heroes who are lovable hot messes but cringes when a heroine is less than perfect? I don’t have the answer, just a lingering disappointment.
To their credit, Schrader and Lenkiewicz mindfully usher audiences into the hallowed halls of journalism and the harrowing horrors of Weinstein’s allegations without treating the dark bits like tabloid spectacle. They focus on the stories of the women and their lives that exist beyond this wretched man. Schrader has assembled a star-studded cast who gives grounded performances that grasp at trauma and resilience. This is all laudable. But within these noble intentions and deep respect, She Said feels a bit bloodless. We’re in these rooms, but the cool attitudes of reporters and editors alike don’t invite us into the stakes of getting the story right — or the ticking clock to it being undermined or derailed.
Between so many phone calls and antiseptic workspaces — which may well be accurate at the Gray Lady, after all — there’s a coldness that stifles She Said. Because no matter the unflappable atmosphere this story might have been borne from, what boiled under the surface was a reckoning that was raw, rage-filled, and unrelenting. That mess is a crucial part of the story, not only inviting us into the frantic pressure of the vocation itself but also the incredible stakes when so many lives will be impacted by when the publish button is pressed. In short, She Said is good. But grubbiness could have made it great.
She Said is now in theaters.