NYFF 2022 review: She Said (Maria Schrader)

She Said‘s admirable restraint renders it bloodless when it should have been provocative and stirring.”

The #MeToo movement found its opening cannon shot in the form of the seminal Harvey Weinstein exposé published in the New York Times in October 2017 by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. In She Said, Maria Schrader brings to the screen the story behind the writing of that news article, based on the non-fiction book the two journalists wrote charting their investigation. It follows in the footsteps of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) and Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017), films that similarly portrayed journalistic hustle, to immense acclaim and awards success – which the makers of She Said probably hope for too.

The film opens, as all journalistic stories today must, with Donald Trump – specifically the abuse allegations brought against him by several women and published by the New York Times. The year is 2016, Carey Mulligan’s Megan Twohey, writer of the Trump article, feels a little bit disillusioned that Trump is still elected president but moves on with her life – having a baby and taking some time off from work. Zoe Kazan’s Jodi Kantor though remains focused on the exposure of systematic abuse in other work environments and pitches a story about Hollywood to her editor played by Patricia Clarkson. Once approved, Twohey is brought onboard as well and the two women embark on their journalistic investigation that will lead to the publishing of the aforementioned seismic piece.

This is very much present-tense history, the piece was obviously widely read, and Harvey Weinstein’s subsequent conviction and tribulations have been a media story for years. The names of the famous actresses involved in the accusations are also well known by now. The interest of the movie then would lie in the recreation of this investigation, in the accumulation of facts and the breakthroughs made in terms of getting people to speak frankly and on the record.

As such, the film, which proceeds in a strictly factual manner through all of the journalistic interviews and other news-gathering activities, does not generate any kind of narrative momentum or forward thrust on its own. There is academic interest in how this pattern of systematic abuse was uncovered, but the general public normally consumes the outcomes of journalistic endeavours in the form of the published reports, not the minutiae behind putting them together. She Said does muster up some compelling suspense in its last section but that’s only when a deadline is set for the article to be published and the negotiations begin with Weinstein and other involved lawyers about obtaining a statement.

The film has a scrubbed clean aesthetic – not just in terms of its visuals but screenplay-wise. This isn’t like other journalistic pictures for a couple of reasons. The people who wrote the story are very much active and still employed by the New York Times, the film is based on their book, and seems like it was completely made with the participation and endorsement of the Times itself. There is, thus, no colour to the journalistic process portrayed at all. It is all very aboveboard, very proper, safe and scrupulous – exactly how journalists would represent their work. Which is all well and good and likely accurate in any case. But as the subject of a film, it isn’t compelling on its own and misses the pungency and piquancy of real life, the salt and vinegar which give life its complexity and deepen any sociological picture. In the moral universe of She Said, there is no doubt of any kind, the truth is a bright line, players stand concretely on either side depending upon whether they are good or bad, and there is little for the audience to reflect upon save the courage of the women coming forward.

This is also where the film makes a slightly obtuse calculation. The fundamental courage within this story – the dramatic choices made if there were any, were by the women who came forward, not the journalists who wrote the article. And the film is strongest when it focuses on these women. Samantha Morton and Jennifer Ehle playing real-life characters and Ashley Judd playing herself contribute the most resonant moments in the film as it is eventually their story, their words, their courage which will bring the patriarchal world order toppling down. One almost wishes that we had seen a film focusing only on them or at least more on them and their journeys.

The recreation of the time period and the New York setting of 2017 is appropriate. We get plenty of shots of mask-less crowds bustling and hustling across New York streets, of famous city landmarks, and from inside the New York Times offices and newsrooms. There is a plainness to the movie’s visual approach that contributes to it feeling like an HBO prestige production, the kind which have been a staple on TV for some time, especially for real-life stories pertaining to politics.

In the lead roles, Mulligan and Kazan deliver sober, unaffected performances with Kazan having the bigger part but Mulligan being top-billed due to her higher profile. Likewise, other performances are good, though famous names like Gwyneth Paltrow, Donald Trump and Lisa Bloom do not appear directly but their voices are recreated over the phone. Harvey Weinstein does appear briefly but is seen only from behind. The film is also tasteful in its handling of sexual assault as none is portrayed on screen and most incidents are just discussed verbally.

She Said represents a serviceable entry into the canon of films about journalism. While it has no obvious defects besides the ones mentioned above, it also has no obvious merits. I think some distance from the events portrayed can always help and extreme allegiance to the subject of a film can perhaps constrain it without truly exploring the complexity inherent in stories of this nature. She Said does not make a concrete case for why the news-gathering story behind the Harvey Weinstein exposé deserved to be brought to the big screen. Its admirable restraint renders it bloodless when it should have been provocative and stirring.