She Said will debut in theaters on Nov. 18, 2022.
She Said traces the genesis of one of modern media’s defining stories: the New York Times report detailing the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the first domino to fall in a global (and still ongoing) reckoning with abuse of power. It is also a removed and at times bizarre retelling of this tale, the kind of half-baked journalism movie that feels like a story-by-proxy, where it seems like it was decided, at some point in the filmmaking process, that there mere detailing of facts and chronology ought to be enough. Then again, perhaps that assumption confers too much control and projects too much intent on its creators. While they seem to know exactly what events were vital to this historical flashpoint, they have neither the skill nor the insight to convey that vitality.
Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, She Said follows real Times journalists Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they attempt to unearth stories of sexual assault during Weinstein’s stint at Miramax, but the film is at its most effective when neither Twohey nor Kantor are its central focus — which is to say, rarely, since it’s partially based on their book, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. The movie opens with a brief prologue set in the early ’90s, when a young, starry-eyed production assistant gleefully begins her career on the set of a Weinstein period piece, before director Maria Schrader smash-cuts to a later scene of this industry hopeful running through the streets, tears streaming down her face, as she leaves her dreams behind. It’s a stunningly effective portrait that creates a narrative mystery, one whose answers we broadly know, but whose details are up for discovery. It’s also the last time She Said features anything resembling poignant human drama.
Fast forward: the year is 2016, and allegations against Donald Trump have surfaced. Fast forward a little further, and those allegations have failed to prevent him from being elected U.S. President. Fast forward further still, to early 2017, and a Times report against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly gets him taken off the air. Fast forward once again and the story finally begins, with an uneasy foundation having been laid. Twohey, who’s pregnant, and Kantor, who’s a working mother, live in a world where these sort of reckonings are on people’s tongues, but the film fails to root the aforementioned events in the two women’s personal narratives, in any real emotional sense. These things happened. Donald Trump was elected despite being exposed, and it was considered an institutional failure, but that failing is more presumed than it is tied to Twohey or Kantor, and the way they see the world.
What unfolds from that point on is less of a dramatic tale and more of a mere recounting of events, often at a distance. As the duo joins forces and convinces their editors to let them follow up on leads, the clues that trickle out (or are unearthed) are largely presented in homogenous fashion, with scenes that begin and end mechanically Shots rarely hold on any piece of logistical or emotional information long enough for them to matter (the film is almost afraid of committing to emotional moments, cutting away from closeups the second they reach their dramatic zenith). Some sources are less forthcoming than others, often out of fear of reprisal, but the increasing paranoia surrounding the story doesn’t pervade She Said’s aesthetic fabric. Characters speak about being followed, or threatened, or feeling like the walls are closing in, but these are merely words; an All The President’s Men this is not. Perhaps the intent is for the audience to believe or disbelieve without the need for convincing artistry — it would certainly fit with the story, at least in theory — but in that case, why make a movie at all, when the information is already out there?
Mulligan’s conception of Twohey is a constant saving grace, preventing She Said from tripping over itself (more than it already does). She comes off as a lost soul searching for absolution, both from her postpartum depression after she gives birth, and from that aforementioned lingering sense of structural failure, where women have been made perpetual victims, and have been perpetually silenced. She projects a constant sense of working through deeply difficult circumstances, even in scenes where she matches wits with Weinstein’s surprisingly forthcoming attorney (Peter Friedman), but beyond the emotions Mulligan herself strains to connect to the larger story, She Said isn’t really concerned with Twohey’s maternal struggles as they pertain to its story of womanhood.
Twohey sometimes exchanges notes on motherhood with Kantor, who, at one point, has the difficult task of explaining to her daughter the nature of the story she’s investigating, but these are mere background details left floating in the ether without informing the rest of the narrative. Rare are the moments when She Said folds its emblems of femininity into its stories of women — particularly, those of victims like Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle) and Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton), who the duo approach and convince to speak out.
To make matters even stranger, She Said has an inconsistent and borderline farcical relationship to celebrity. Most journalists in the story remain anonymous to the public, and most of the victims who worked behind the scenes at Miramax aren’t instantly recognizable either, so they’re all played by various capable actors, but things get thorny when a distractingly de-aged Ashley Judd shows up as herself, while every other household name (presumably, those who didn’t agree to appear) is left just out of frame, to the point of absurdity. Early on, Trump appears as a disembodied voice on the phone, played by comedian and impressionist James Austin Johnson, making you wonder just how seriously to take the movie. Gwyneth Paltrow factors into the story consistently, but her scenes all cut around her voice and physical presence. The actors impersonating the voices of Weinstein and actress Rose McGowan do so commendably — ignoring the fact that Weinstein’s brief, semi-obscured appearance, at a key moment, is sure to elicit laughter — but this constant need to hint at prominent characters without fully portraying them robs key scenes of dramatic heft. This is especially true when Kantor is the one speaking to them, because Kazan (an otherwise capable actress) is saddled mostly with grating platitudes and a broad caricature of a noble hero.
On the other hand, scenes that focus on the testimonies of Madden and Perkins are wildly engaging, thanks to Ehle and Morton’s enrapturing performances as women who have long buried their trauma, but their collective screentime amounts to pocket change. The moment the screen cuts back to the un-dynamic duo, it resumes its sense of listlessness and foregone conclusions. The only time She Said is as engaging or dramatically precise as the smash-cut in its opening scene is during the brief moments it plays real recordings of Weinstein’s unwanted sexual advances, over chilling shots of anonymous hotel hallways — any of which could have been the scene of these crimes — but the fact that so few moments featuring human faces ever measure up is an indictment in itself.
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Worst of all, when it finally comes time to hit “Publish,” the world-changing effects of Twohey and Kantor’s work are left up to the imagination, if only because the film has, with brief exception, failed to capture what it truly means for people to finally have the chance to speak out. For contrast, a much simpler film like The Assistant, which unfolds similarly in Weinstein’s vicinity without portraying or even naming him, is laser focused on the emotional and psychological impact of living in a world created by men, and for men, and it succeeds without needing any character to extemporize. Its “importance” is self-evident (not to mention, deeply felt), while that of She Said is presumed and projected.