It isn't an exaggeration to say that the revelation of extensive allegations of sexual abuse and harassment from Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein in 2017 changed public perception of and internal practices within the filmmaking industry. The wave of the Me Too movement had already begun, but the reporting from New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey revealed the extent to which the Hollywood system had provided sanctuary for Weinstein's crimes and a means to cover them up. It highlighted how ingrained a culture of sexism and abuse had become within Hollywood, and how impossible it had been to bring those abuses to light.
It was inevitable that Hollywood itself would eventually dramatise the investigation into Weinstein, and with 'She Said' from director Maria Schrader ('I'm Your Man') and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz ('Disobedience'), the investigative work of Kantor and Twohey is placed front-and- centre. Following in the tradition of 'All The President's Men' (1976) and 'Spotlight' (2015), 'She Said' is as much interested in the process of how this story came about as it is about what the story revealed, or at least seems to think it is.
The film charts Kantor (Zoe Kazan, 'The Big Sick') and Twohey (Carey Mulligan, 'Promising Young Woman') as they navigate the minefield of NDAs and cover-ups around the allegations against Weinstein. Stories of his crimes had circulated for decades, but had never built traction in the press, often buried under legal threats or victims unwilling and unable to come forward. Hoping to expand on recent sexual abuse allegations against powerful men, the two women begin to dig, dodge and leap their way towards a story they can legally report, one that reveals a much more frightening web of abuse towards women on all levels of filmmaking. All the while, they need to navigate parenthood and marriage, and keeping themselves mentally and physically safe. The closer they come to the truth, the greater the risk if they fail.
The subject matter of 'She Said' is of monumental importance. As NYT editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson, 'Sharp Objects') points out in the film, the intense public interest in Hollywood might be the key to unlocking allegations of abuse towards women in many more industries with a less visible profile. In a sense, this film could have been another piece in the ever-expanding puzzle of how endemic these abuses have become. Unfortunately, the film itself is so heavy-handed and ill-constructed that it feels more like a summary of the facts than a call to action, and a summary with surprisingly little dramatic effect.
The issues with 'She Said' affect practically every level of production, but it begins with Lenkiewicz's interminable screenplay. Almost every line of dialogue is there to deliver exposition in a clunky and self-conscious manner, often using syntax and language that almost no human being would use in casual conversation. There isn't a scene where either of the protagonists doesn't receive a revelatory phone call, sometimes multiple calls within a few minutes. The feeling you get is that of a dramatised Wikipedia article rather than a full-realised narrative film, but the repetitive rhythms and modes of information delivery make it a longer and less satisfying experience. Apart from some flashes into their personal lives, you learn very little about Kantor and Twohey, and while one might argue that the reporting should be the centre of the film, it still needs us to emotionally invest in these characters. The other reporters and staff at the NYT are so poorly constructed that you don't even know their names, even though they occupy a significant amount of screen time, and for the most part, feel more like caricatures than characters.
As a result, both Schrader and the cast have very little to work with. The rhythm of the film is laborious, with most scenes feeling like a list of points being ticked off, many barely a minute long. This means there is very little time to settle in to any given scene or understand the scope of it before being rushed off somewhere else. Within each scene, the rhythm is also off, most conversations delivered in a weird, almost disconnected staccato. You can see both Kazan and Mulligan, two truly tremendous actors, struggling to grip onto something that might drive the action forward. The delivery of information in the screenplay results in endless, lifeless shots of people at desks, walking down the street, pouring over a computer late at night, and while these are obviously the main features of working in journalism, it's striking how dull the film seems to make them. And there's no reason to - films like 'All The President's Men' and 'Zodiac' (2007) find ways to make these activities thrilling. Even 'Spotlight', a film I have little affection for, excels in its demonstration of the process of investigative journalism.
The real problem at the heart of 'She Said', like many biopic or true story films, is that it never justifies the decision to tell this story as a dramatised narrative film. There's no question that the story at its centre is arresting and important, but at every turn, it struggles to make it dramatically interesting in this form. All I kept thinking was how much more affecting this may have been as a documentary, even if the stories from survivors were still performed by actors to protect their anonymity or privacy. I would relish the opportunity to hear Kantor and Twohey tell us themselves how they cracked one of the most important stories of our time rather than watching two actors rambling around offices and suburban streets pretending to do it. There simply isn't enough material here to make a narrative film, certainly not one that is over two hours long.
The other problem is that this film so desperately wants to be 'Spotlight', and almost entirely to its determent. The balance of exploring process and telling a devastating human story is a really tricky balance to pull off, and 'She Said' seems to use 'Spotlight' as a blueprint for how to approach this. I don't find that balance effective in 'Spotlight' either, but where that film felt like misjudgement, here it feels derivative. There's even a certain degree to which the cinematography and score are trying to copy the Oscar-winning film, with the uninspired flatness of Natasha Braier's camera struggling to give them film any visual scope, and Nicholas Brittle's frustrating score as abrasive and intrusive as Howard Shore's for 'Spotlight'. Where the film truly pales in comparison is how invested we are in the reporters. For all its flaws, 'Spotlight' beautifully portrays the complicated lives of investigative journalists, having to balance objective practice with their own personal feelings about the story they are investigating. The most affecting moments in 'Spotlight' come from when these two concerns collide, but they are never as powerful in 'She Said' simply because the film doesn't give us much scope to understand who Kantor and Twohey are. Any view into their personal lives feels stilted, performative and lacking in confidence, as if the film is leaving its comfort zone and scurrying away to safer ground.
Both Schrader and the cast have very little to work with. The rhythm of the film is laborious, with most scenes feeling like a list of points being ticked off, many barely a minute long.
One aspect that 'She Said' does handle beautifully and with great care is the stories of the survivors. Unadorned and direct, and occasionally played against unsettling still shots of empty hallways and messy hotel rooms, these moments allow the film to stop and focus. As a result, we have more space to listen and take in the abuse these women suffered and the impact on their professional and personal lives. They're also the most dramatically active scenes of the film, allowing for necessary tension, rhythmic shifts and for both Kazan and Mulligan to listen and be still, unencumbered by clunky dialogue. There is one shot late in the film where we simply which Mulligan listening, and it is by far her finest moment in the film. Whatever power 'She Said' has, it comes in those moments, and is all the better for it.
There are also some interesting variations on tired film clichés. Adam Shapiro and Tom Pelphrey (both 'Mank' alumni) play Kantor and Twohey's partners respectively, and it's a lovely inverse of the wife at home taking care of the kids while the male protagonist does their job. We aren't given a lot about their home lives, but while the little we do see is mostly inconsequential (apart from Twohey's struggle with postpartum depression), at least there's a sense of stability in their home lives and male partners willing to support their female partners' stressful work.
Across the board, the performances struggle with the issues inherent in the screenplay and the resulting lack of clarity in the direction. There are however three genuine standouts. Samantha Morton ('Minority Report') almost steals the film with her one scene as ex-Mirimax employee Zelda Perkins. Her scene with Kazan, where she tells her story of speaking out against Weinstein's abuse of her colleagues, is electrifying, bringing a stability and subtlety the film so sorely needs. Jennifer Ehle ('A Quiet Passion') is also wonderful and devastating as Laura Madden, an abuse survivor whose life was torn apart after a horrifying attack from Weinstein as a young woman. There's a delicacy to her performance that is incredibly moving, resilience hidden within the pain. Of the amorphous blob of NYT staff, Andre Braugher ('The Mist') is the one standout as Executive Editor Dean Baquet. The flashes of comedy in the film are some of its lowest points, either ill-timed or shockingly obvious, but Braugher is able to bring a spritely and impressive comic touch to his scenes, especially those where he communicates directly with Weinstein. The last quarter of the film almost course-corrects towards the film 'She Said' could have been, a focus and specificity lacking elsewhere, and this is being driven primarily by Braugher.
Watching 'She Said' was a deeply frustrating experience, not only because of how heavy-handed it is in almost every respect, but because I was trying so hard to like it. This isn't the kind of film you want to walk out of feeling ambivalent. You want to walk out angry, inspired, your blood pumping in your ears, your eyes stinging from the furious tears you've been shedding at the sheer injustice of a system that allows this to happen. There are bits and pieces of information in the film that I didn't know, but for the most part, it is exactly the film you expect it to be, certainly not more and maybe even a bit less. This is that problematic kind of "true story" film that assumes its importance simply by existing, favouring content over form to the point where neither do their job. There is, of course, a much worse version of this film, the kind we saw with a film like 'Bombshell', so at least there is nothing exploitative about 'She Said'. What we have though is a film that's mostly forgettable, one that leaves very little impression as you leave the cinema other than to nod your head and go, "Hmm, yes, that was terrible situation, wasn't it," before heading off for dinner or a drink. When it comes to a story as monumental and essential as the one this film is trying to tell, that's the last thing you want your audience to be doing.