In an opening sequence of She Said, reporter Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) interviews a woman who appears to be very afraid. It is 2016 and the woman is trying to decide whether or not she will go on record about her experience of sexual misconduct by a presidential candidate. The candidate is Donald Trump; the woman decides to go on the record. The piece is published. The woman is hounded. Despite dozens of accusations to follow, Trump goes on to win the presidency.
This disquieting recent era is the backdrop of director Maria Schrader’s new drama about the two New York Times journalists who broke the story of director Harvey Weinstein’s widespread sexual predation. The reporting was pivotal not only because of the director’s influence in Hollywood—he helmed an empire that knew about his behavior and protected it—but also because it helped ignite the #MeToo movement.
In the film, Twohey—played to keen, knowing effect by Mulligan—is struggling with postpartum depression and is initially reluctant to join fellow reporter Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan, who is earnest but sinks into her role less comfortably) in investigating a tip about Weinstein. She wonders, understandably, if there are ever consequences for sexual misconduct, given that the country just elected Trump, and also whether actresses are the right avatars for this kind of investigative journalism.
But Kazan persuades her, countering that the issue is deeply systemic: If even powerful movie stars can be shamed and silenced, what chance do regular women have in their own workplaces? The two journalists start digging, aided by an all-star cast of other Times journalists including editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson, layered in chunky jewelry and deserving of more screen time) and executive editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher). They know that the story goes deep, but Weinstein’s victims—from former assistants to famous actresses—are terrified to speak up, bound, as Twohey and Kantor discover, by layers and layers of non-disclosure agreements and settlements.
Then comes the procedural Journalism Movie shots, familiar but competent and comforting: the reporters bustling through New York City morning traffic, sensible backpacks strapped on and chalices of coffee in hand, then, making calls, pounding pavement and door knocking, then, more calls. They meet with actresses who have been harmed by Weinstein (including Ashley Judd, who plays herself) and try to persuade them to go on the record. At home, glasses of wine and patient spouses await, as Twohey and Kantor (both mothers) balance home life and a growing obsession with a story that yearns to be told.
As the reporting comes together, the camera lingers on the Times’s office high-rise, a desk or two lit up, as the story is put to paper. In between, there are flashbacks, dating back decades, to victims—doe-eyed and excited about the movie industry—before Weinstein preyed on them.
“He took my voice when I was just about to start finding it,” says Laura Madden (a gentle, assured Jennifer Ehle), a crew member assaulted by Weinstein in the early ‘90s. In the scene, Twohey and Kantor meet with Madden at the beach while she’s on a family vacation, and her children can be seen playing happily in the background. She agrees to go on the record, the first woman to do so.
In recent years, headline-making implosions of the wealthy and powerful (Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann) have, essentially in real-time, proved to be bankable Hollywood content. To watch Elon Musk run Twitter into the ground is to watch at a dissociative distance, wondering who will be cast in the inevitable HBO show about the platform’s, and potentially Musk’s own, implosion. It’s worth asking if these productions actually raise meaningful questions about power or if they just play into the hands of power, propping up the next amoral mogul and implicating viewers in the process. (After all, Brad Pitt, whose own behavior toward his ex-wife and children has recently been called into question, is a producer of She Said.)
But the film masterfully demonstrates how pernicious Weinstein’s abuses of power were—getting young women alone, masturbating in front of them, asking them for and sometimes forcing them to do sexual favors—as well as his abuses of economical and social power: blacklisting his victims from industry jobs and making them sign strict settlements. These weren’t alleyway assaults; they were the mundane, commonplace, damaging kind represented more rarely—predation propped up by paperwork.
A better film might have stuck more closely to the victims than reporters (in addition to Ehle, Samantha Morton is fantastic as Zelda Perkins, a former Weinstein employee who spoke out against him), but I wonder if that film would’ve gotten the attention that this one will. At the end of the day, She Said is a genre film.
And while it’s not perfect, it’s also not self-righteous or showy. It’s quiet, restrained, and appropriately self-aware that it is telling the story of a movement that has sputtered and faltered and is still at the very beginning. The triumph of hitting publish is guarded; since the Weinstein story broke, the momentum of #MeToo has stilled and perhaps even regressed. I remember my own #MeToo status on Facebook, years ago, which began with concern that the phrase might eventually be perceived as an “admission of guilt rather than violation.” I remember doubting that anyone was listening.
She Said is a gripping account of an instance when the world really did listen, and powerfully so, but it’s worth not getting too comfortable. As I walked out of the theater screening on a dark Raleigh night, the first notification on my phone relayed that Donald Trump had announced his candidacy again for the presidency.
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