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Can ‘She Said’ Comment on Hollywood From Within Hollywood?

The new movie documenting two female journalists’ investigation into Harvey Weinstein is thorough and at times even powerful. But how do you reconcile the fact that Weinstein’s behavior was enabled by the silence of Hollywood with that same industry’s impulse to make a film about his demise?

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Once Harvey Weinstein’s crimes—and the larger picture of a system that allowed them to persist—became public, the film industry didn’t wait long to start addressing them on-screen, perhaps in an effort to distance itself from the infamous producer and his dark legacy. Kitty Green’s 2019 film The Assistant, produced by other legendary (but beloved) figures such as James Schamus, wasn’t a direct take on Weinstein, but it didn’t need to be. There was no mystery as to what the film really was about, while the lack of specificity also allowed it to speak to a culture of workplace toxicity and sexual harrasment that extends far beyond the reaches of Hollywood.

She Said is much more direct: Maria Schrader’s film, out on November 18, tells the true story of the New York Times reporters who brought Weinstein’s secrets out in the open. And yet it’s hard not to feel a certain tension between the film and its subject. How do you reconcile the fact that Weinstein’s reign of terror was enabled by the silence of many in Hollywood with that same industry’s impulse to make a film (in order to eventually turn a profit) about his demise? Could She Said be Hollywood’s attempt at redemption, a clearing of the air to finally close this dark chapter in its history? Is it a sufficient advocate for more transparency and basic justice? And even if it is, is that something worth praising, or is it far too little, and far too late?

Working with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Schrader doesn’t focus on the system that allowed Weinstein’s operations to go unchecked, centering She Said instead on the painstaking investigation carried out by journalists Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). The influence of All the President’s Men and Spotlight on the film is more than palpable—who can blame the filmmakers for wanting to grant the same level of gravitas to the Weinstein affair as to Watergate, or the rampant sexual abuse of the Catholic Church? And this parallel also allows two women to play the kinds of roles that once almost exclusively went to men, making She Said even more of a feminist work.

Essentially a procedural film, She Said depicts in detail the way that Kantor and Twohey had to pester various people and institutions in order to gain any printable evidence on Weinstein. Rarely have actors been asked to talk on the phone and read out emails so much, but Mulligan and Kazan manage to make such disconnected interactions watchable. They both bring a certain seriousness to their parts that’s hardly seen in women on-screen, as boring as that is to point out. They’re not particularly pleasant or cool, they don’t get extremely attached to the women they interview but they respect them enough to be kind, and they get the job done and care deeply about it.

She Said chooses to let the audience in on the personal toll of not only the Weinstein story, but also of being a woman in a society that remains deeply unequal. While desperately trying to track down printable evidence against Weinstein, we see Kantor and Twohey answering phone calls on the weekend as one of them pushes their child in a stroller, video chats with their young daughter while traveling to meet a victim and hears their kid say the word “rape” for the first time, or gets catcalled by a man in a bar while trying to get work done. If some of these glimpses into the daily struggle of womanhood sometimes feel too on the nose, it may only be because misogyny is, in itself, a profoundly absurd and boring reality. On the other hand, the movie runs the risk of reducing its leads to their female condition, and oversimplifying Weinstein’s abuse into just an issue of misogyny, when so many other systemic problems were at play.

The film’s Spotlight-like, people-talking-in-meeting-rooms tone doesn’t always make for the most exciting time. The general doom and gloom that seems to reign at the Times offices even before the extent of Weinstein’s machinations have been uncovered often feels unnatural and forced. Nevertheless, Schrader and her cast manage to make the infinite number of phone calls between the journalists and their reticent leads feel exciting often enough. The minimalist camerawork, as well as Mulligan’s and Kazan’s performances, manages to let the inherent suspense of each of these interactions shine through organically. Little by little, as more and more women first tell their stories, then back away from going on the record, a sense of dread and frustration starts seeping through and She Said hits a profoundly and appropriately depressing note.

The problem with telling this true story from the angle of the reporters, however, is that in the end, Twohey and Kantor didn’t hold the key to unlocking Weinstein’s secrets—the survivors did, and as long as they didn’t feel ready to make their trauma public, not much could happen. The film’s trailer oddly depicts the journalists trying to “get” the women to tell their story, but thankfully, no such pressure is applied: Kantor and Twohey just wait and hope that the survivors will eventually change their minds and come forward. After hitting a lull, the investigation (and the film) gains new momentum when some women decide to speak up. If not particularly dynamic as a narrative, this structure does make it clear that as much as Twohey’s and Kantor’s work paved the way for the scandal to erupt, it was the women who were sexually harassed by Weinstein who had to walk it—and it is from them that a glimmer of hope emerges.

The women he hurt, even when they choose to stay silent, are depicted as well-rounded people, with lives and histories that go beyond their abuse. They are portrayed as true survivors rather than walking open wounds. Their reasons for keeping silent are presented in all their complexity: Far from simply being afraid, some of them were left feeling ashamed, unsure of what to make of the event, or too angry to ever look back, determined to move on and never be defined by it. The actors called on to portray these rich characters are nothing less than stellar, with Jennifer Ehle in particular bringing all her sensitivity to play Laura Madden, who gave up on her dreams of working in the film industry after a horrific encounter with Weinstein in her early 20s. She tells her story from a beach in England, in a peaceful setting and with a warm tone of gratefulness for the life she’s managed to build for herself despite her trauma. Samantha Morton appears as a former assistant who found out about Weinstein’s abuse of her colleague and was thoroughly silenced by his legal team; all quiet strength, Morton gives her character the devastating self-assuredness that comes with resigning yourself to an unjust world. By leaning into how different all these women are, Schrader paints a fuller and more devastating picture of the damage that Weinstein inflicted all over the world for decades. In these moments, the film gains traction, and the very real lives he affected feel more tangible.

The true-crime aspect of She Said is even more pronounced and striking when certain real-world actresses who were victimized by Weinstein appear (or almost do) as themselves. The effect is fascinating, if not entirely successful. After being skeptical of The New York Times and whether the magazine would go far enough to take down Weinstein, Ashley Judd ends up telling her story to the journalists over Skype, a reenactment of what she went through in real life when she talked to Twohey, which in itself was her recalling the past. It’s a strange moment out of time and space, at once within reality and fiction; her intervention feels like a stamp of approval on the film from the survivors, giving it a weight that it may not be able to hold. But while this kind of fourth-wall-breaking provokes the audience into recognizing the truth, it also contrasts sharply with the rest of the film’s hyper-controlled style and brings to our attention all the other actresses who appear only indirectly in the film, whether through voicemails (Rose McGowan’s voice is not actually the actress’s) or as constructive absences (Gwyneth Paltrow is crucial to the story and yet invisible). Whether those absences are intentional or circumstantial can’t be known, but they do raise the question of whether this true story can be told in a way that satisfies every person who was involved in it—and if it can’t, whether it should then be told at all.

Both The Assistant and She Said include shots of the New York City skyline at night, which was the iconic logo of Weinstein’s Miramax company. But it also feels like the perfect symbol for him and his reign over the American film industry: acting under cover of darkness in the middle of it all, looking like a glittering opportunity but turning out to be cold and dangerous. If She Said arrives too soon and feels rushed, it also isn’t good or complex enough to truly account for everything that had to be corrupted in order for Weinstein to thrive for so long. Perhaps we will need a plethora of films about the case in order to arrive at a comprehensive and honest look at his abuse and its consequences. Or perhaps rather than trying to rid itself of its complicity in Weinstein’s actions with films about him, Hollywood could admit to its faults and truly change for the better.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.