Producers: Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner Director: Maria Schrader Screenplay: Rebecca Lenkiewicz Cast: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Zach Grenier, Samantha Morton, Peter Friedman, Sean Cullen, Angela Yeoh, Tom Pelphrey, Adam Shapiro, Edwin Astor Chin, Anastasia Barzee, Mike Houston and Ashley Judd Distributor: Universal Pictures
Soberly told, sad and unsettling, “She Said,” which follows the New York Times investigation that led to the sordid revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual misconduct, thereby helping to spark the #metoo movement, is in the tradition of fact-based journalistic exposé stories like “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.” In the hands of screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Maria Schrader, adapting the 2019 book by Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the story in October, 2017, it avoids sensationalism, handling the subject with discretion and a refusal to pump things up with cinematic tricks; some will feel it deliberately underplayed, just as in “I’m Your Man” Schrader refused to whack you over the head with rom-com conventions. And, truth be told, it does occasionally drag or go slack.
But the film doesn’t lack tension, especially in the latter stages, as the reporters and their bosses at the newspaper are working overtime to get their bombshell article into final shape for publication, observing the legal niceties while securing agreement from reluctant women abused in various ways by Weinstein to go on the record with their allegations. It’s satisfying as sheer drama as well as expertly done docu-drama.
It also makes a special—and welcome—point of putting proper emphasis on the victims, rather than the perpetrator. Weinstein is heard bellowing threats on the reporters over the phone, and he’s briefly glimpsed from the rear in a final sit-down with the Times staff. (He’s played by Mike Houston, whose bulk makes the figure fearsome even without facial expressions.) But it’s the woman he wronged—including actress Ashley Judd, playing herself—who will be seared into the viewer’s memory.
In fact, “She Said” begins with one of them, a young woman in Wales who happens upon a movie set while out walking on the beach and joins the crew. She’s then shown running down a street in tears, after a presumed encounter with Weinstein. Later it will emerge that she was Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle, in a wrenching performance), one of the first women to tell her story with attribution to Kantor (Zoe Kazan).
The scene then switches to 2016 New York City, where Kantor, played by Kazan with a mousy demeanor that masks a shrewd intelligence and an ability to get interviewees to open up to her, is working under the direction of Times investigative editor Rebecca Corbett, whom Patricia Clarkson endows with both innate perception and quiet authority. When Twohey, played by Carey Mulligan as more extroverted and sharp-edged, returns from covering Donald Trump’s reported mistreatment of women exhausted and downcast, Corbett pairs the two to investigate amorphous reports of sexual harassment in the film business, which, as the result of earlier allegations by actress Rose McGowan (not depicted here, except for phone conversations), came to focus on Weinstein.
A good deal of the film fleshes out the characters of Twohey and Kantor—both married to supportive husbands, the first to literary agent Jim Rutman (Tom Pelphrey), and Kantor to Ron Lieber (Adam Shapiro), a Times economics columnist. There are many scenes of their domestic lives, with Kantor and Lieber sharing duties caring for their young children and Twohey suffering depression following the birth of her first child. The background reinforces not just the often harried lives of the reporters but their understandable commitment, as mothers of daughters themselves, to get the story about Weinstein’s abuse of women right.
So we follow them tracking down women who worked at Weinstein’s Miramax company, most of them bound by non-disclosure agreements and unable to speak even if they were willing. (The use of NDAs to hide sexual abuse becomes a continuing thread of the story.) We see them contacting actresses like McGowan, Judd and (an unseen) Gwyneth Paltrow for details of their contact with Weinstein. And we watch as they, along with Corbett and Times executive editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher, putting across an air of unflappability combined with absolute determination), deal by phone with Weinstein and his staff of protectors, or try to cajole information out of Weinstein lawyer Lanny Davis (Peter Friedman) or Miramax Board member Lance Maerov (Sean Cullen). They finally hit pay dirt when Kantor gets a call advising her to look up Irwin Reiter (Zach Grenier), a financial executive at Miramax willing to disclose damaging information.
But the emphasis is on the harrowing testimony of women like Madden, whom Ehle portrays as finally willing to go on record even as she prepares to undergo a mastectomy; Zelda Perkins, whom Samantha Morton depicts in a shattering scene as she reports confronting Weinstein over his abuse of young assistant Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh); and Chiu herself, who then describes an experience she kept from everyone, including her family and her husband (Edwin Astor Chin). Schrader employs a mixture of conversation and flashbacks—discreetly composed by her, cinematographer Natasha Braier and editor Hansjörg Weißbrich—to relate their stories. And Judd is given a sequence with a heroic cast as she declares her intent to go on the record.
With a cast that’s strong from top to bottom and a crew (including production designer Meredith Lippincott and costumer Brittany Loar and composer Nicholas Britell) who eschew showiness in favor of realism, “She Said” ably documents a slice of recent American history that’s powerful in itself and has proven to have much wider social impact.