By Ann Hornaday
The broad factual contours of the story related in “She Said” are well known: In 2017, New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor published an explosive series of articles about film producer Harvey Weinstein, raising credible allegations that he engaged in serial sexual abuse and assault of actresses and employees over decades.
Coming on the heels of Donald Trump’s election, the articles sparked a global movement of similar investigations, reckonings and calls for systemic change.
Weinstein was convicted of rape and sexual assault in New York in 2020; he’s on trial in Los Angeles and faces similar charges in London.
With the outcomes well-known, the value of an on-screen dramatisation might be questionable.
But “She Said”, adapted from Twohey and Kantor's book of the same name by screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Maria Schrader, provides an engrossing, even galvanising answer.
At their best, screen versions of recent events can inscribe widely known facts on a deeper, more emotional level; they make the stakes higher and otherwise distant or abstract concepts more granular and human.
“She Said” takes a story we thought we knew and gives it new, shattering life.
Schrader takes a page from the great journalism movies – most notably “All the President’s Men” and, more recently, “Spotlight” – by paring down the narrative to its leanest, most unfussy elements.
“She Said” begins with a clever misdirect, with Twohey, played with whippetlike intensity by Carey Mulligan, seeming to be talking about Weinstein when in fact the subject is Trump, who, as the movie opens, is a presidential candidate.
Several months later, Twohey is the mother of a girl; Kantor, played with gentle soulfulness by Zoe Kazan, is balancing a cosily messy family life with her next big story – in this case, an investigation of workplace sexual misconduct.
Rumour has it that Miramax, founded by Weinstein and his brother, Bob, has always been a treacherous place for women. She begins to make some calls to see if anyone might go on the record.
What ensues is a straightforward, if not necessarily pulse-pounding how-we-got-that-story chase, with Twohey and Kantor eventually teaming up and working with their exacting, unflappable editor Rebecca Corbett (played by the equally exacting, unflappable Patricia Clarkson, who, among other virtues, gets Corbett’s famously fabulous hair exactly right).
Times Executive editor Dean Baquet might not bear the slightest resemblance to actor Andre Braugher, but Braugher brings the thunder in understated, satisfying ways, especially when he’s going toe to toe with Weinstein and his legal team; like the classics it evokes, “She Said” wisely keeps its villain mostly off-screen, the more effectively to play up his menacing sense of omnipotence in Manhattan’s grasping media culture.
(The verisimilitude is heightened by Schrader’s choice to film in the Times’s real-life newsroom, with its pops of red and quiet, hivelike hum.)
The cat-and-mouse game of doing battle with one of the film business's most notorious knife fighters would have made for a suitably intriguing movie.
But the power of “She Said” lies in its moments of potent moral clarity, which arrive in revelatory set pieces.
A scene involving a former Miramax employee, portrayed with breathtaking vulnerability and steel by Samantha Morton, qualifies as “She Said’s” bookkeeper scene, recalling the gemlike sequence in “All the President's Men” featuring Jane Alexander as a courageous, unwittingly pivotal source.
Just as moving is Ashley Judd, who went on the record for Twohey and Kantor at a crucial turning point, and who plays herself here in an electrifying performance of grace and grit, and Jennifer Ehle, who lends her distinctive warmth and dignity to her role as a one-time Miramax executive who accuses Weinstein of assaulting her as a 22-year-old, adding that he “took my voice… just as I was about to start finding it”.
Schrader films “She Said” with a bracing combination of straightforwardness and sensitivity, staging the most prurient details of Weinstein's cases with sombre restraint rather than salacious literalism.
Mulligan, playing another avenging angel after her role as a fearless feminist vigilante in “Promising Young Woman”, and Kazan each have their moments as well, when the enormity of what they’re trying to expose – the centuries of women reflexively being expected to tolerate all manner of abuse, condescension, violence and garden-variety BS, and then blaming themselves for having endured it – comes crashing into them at random but flattening moments.
“She Said” tells an absorbing story but, more importantly, it makes the undercurrents of that story legible and relatable, right up through the tense final moments before a journalist clicks “Publish”.
The tools of the trade used to be typewriters and telexes, but the thrill is just the same. So is the terror.
“She Said” has earned its place in the pantheon of newspaper movies, if only because the film-makers understand a fundamental truth: You can’t get the big things right unless you get the little things right, too.
“She Said” is showing at cinemas, nationwide.