It’s tempting to eye-roll She Said, the film adaptation of New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s 2019 book of the same name on their investigation into Harvey Weinstein.
I entered the film, from the Unorthodox director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, concerned it would feel too self-congratulatory for the diffuse, difficult, ongoing #MeToo movement, wary of another peg in the inevitable viral content-to-screen pipeline. There was high potential that it would be, like Hollywood’s beleaguered #MeToo organization Time’s Up, burdened by the albatross of celebrity – too focused on Weinstein as a singularly villainous figure, or sunk by distracting impersonations of famous people. Who wants to see an actor transform into Harvey Weinstein, even for the undoubtedly tense and cinematic moment when the producer showed up unannounced to the Times’s office days before publishing as a last-ditch intimidation tactic?
Weaker movies would go all-in for such drama, but Schrader and Lenkiewicz have crafted a sensitive, emotionally astute film that avoids such pitfalls. It’s solid recent history faithful to its source material – reverent even, as underlined by Nicholas Britell’s full-bodied, foreboding score.
Schrader and cinematographer Natasha Braier effectively blend nutritive literal realism (Kantor Googling photos of famous actors, a browser with 30+ open tabs, the New York Times’s content management system, the Times’s cafeteria) with emotional realism, trained on the collective “she” of the title. To wit: the film opens not in 2016 New York but Ireland, 1992, where a young Laura Madden stumbles on to a film set and into an entry-level job, amenable and eager. Cut to a shot of her sprinting down the street in tears, face stricken with horror.
Flashbacks to multiple women’s younger selves weave throughout the film in brief, potent snippets, effectively grounding the requisite competency porn of a newsroom drama with the numerous emotional rivers coursing beneath it.
The work sequences, in which Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan) call and call again and show up unannounced, are indeed satisfying to watch. As in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film on the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic church, She Said delivers on the dopamine hits of a journalism movie: proficient pace (the film runs just over two hours but feels shorter), tactile work, the thrill of pavement pounded into revelation.
Lenkiewicz’s adaptation mostly sticks to the book’s chronology of the investigation: how Kantor, a veteran reporter of workplace harassment, was tipped off to Rose McGowan’s account of rape by Harvey Weinstein after a Times investigation successfully unseated the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly; how she linked up with Twohey as the latter was slogging through postpartum depression (her first child was born between investigations into Donald Trump and Weinstein). How they amassed the pieces off-record – first McGowan, then Ashley Judd (playing herself), then Gwyneth Paltrow (not depicted – good decision) and former assistants bound by NDAs who slammed the door or ignored calls. How they put together the outline: a system of payouts and settlements, a culture of fear, an infuriating pattern of predation disguised as business meetings. How they dressed, took late-night calls, dotted every i and crossed every t, liaised with editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Times head Dean Bacquet (Andre Braugher).
And most effectively, how and why each woman agreed to talk. More than anything else, scenes which cede the floor to the non-celebrity sources offer the strongest case for a film adaptation, the emotional clarity text or real-life public interviews could not provide. The recollections by former assistant Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) and Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh), both bound by NDAs from the early 90s, and an adult Madden (a devastating Jennifer Ehle) are all a gut punch. Coupled with flashbacks to their younger, unwounded selves, the three performances convey trepidation, fear, shame – the instinct to tell and to hide at once, to explain – that the book version, let alone the news stories reliant on hard evidence, could never communicate.
There’s an underlying message in the follow-up stories, press and book on the strength of collective testimony and solidarity; it’s evident that the work was better when the two reporters joined forces. But on a film level, the power duo works less well. Kazan is the noticeably stiffer performer of the pair, making scenes in which the two reporters work together less seamless than when they’re apart – Mulligan’s delivery as Twohey feels lived-in, combustible, instinctual; Kazan’s feels like script. So, too, do heavy-handed moments of obvious proclamations such as “this is about the system protecting abuse.”
In its stronger moments, She Said follows the precedent of The Assistant, Australian film-maker Kitty Green’s 2020 portrait of toxic adjacency at a Weinstein-esque production company, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks with well-known info. When that final showdown with Weinstein does arrive, we see him only in shadow, from behind; the camera takes in the faces of his powerful accomplices – celebrity attorney Lisa Bloom, prosecutor Linda Fairstein – while zooming in on Twohey’s striking expression: fury, bemusement, an ounce of pity at his unheard bloviating.
Like the book, She Said imparts the mountain of turmoil, obstacles, dead-ends, relationships and uncertainty which undergird a single story – all the work and doubt and strength we cannot see at first. The half-decade of MeToo has been hazy stops and starts, necessarily messy; how satisfying, then, to see its origins clearly.
She Said is screening at the New York film festival and will be released in US and UK cinemas on 18 November, and in Australia on 17 November.
This article was amended on 14 October 2022. An earlier version said a scene in which Harvey Weinstein faced off with the New York Times included the lawyer David Boies. In both fact and the film, Boies was not present.