When Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story in October 2017, they achieved what many journalists hope for. Their reporting for the New York Times helped ignite the #MeToo Movement, a national reckoning against the country’s powerful, and rich, rapists and sexual predators inspired by Tarana Burke in 2006. In the eyes of some (including me), they were heroes who brought the stories of survivors to light and helped take down one of Hollywood’s most powerful men. More than 80 women have accused Weinstein of sexual assault.
She Said, Maria Schrader’s film adapted from Kantor and Twohey’s book of the same name, erodes their image as heroes. Not because it humanizes the story of Weinstein’s survivors, or the reporters, but because it feels like a Hollywood attempt to capitalize on #MeToo momentum, making Kantor and Twohey the stars without actually grappling with what has happened since the story broke on Oct. 5, 2017.
The film opens in Ireland in 1992, with a young woman on a movie set. The next scene is a close up of the same woman, with tears falling down her face, as she runs away with clothing clutched to her chest. There is no dialogue, but it’s one of the few moments in She Said that feels like a creative imagining of the story rather than a straightforward retelling of the book, which basically mapped out Kantor and Twohey’s reporting process. (Why not make a documentary instead?)
Then we’re in New York in 2016, where a pregnant Twohey (Carey Mulligan) is working on a story about sexual misconduct allegations against then presidential candidate Donald Trump and Kantor (Zoe Kazan) seems to be covering immigration. Twohey gets death threats. Her sources—Trump’s accusers—get literal shit sent to their homes. Then Trump wins the election, Twohey’s baby is born, and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly is accused of sexual harassment and is eventually fired. Times reporters are instructed to look at various institutions for similar harassment stories, and Kantor gets a tip about a 2016 tweet from actor Rose McGowan claiming she was raped by a major Hollywood producer in the late 1990s. All of this happens very matter-of-factly, and the stage is set for 2017.
The story unfolds in a series of off-the-record conversations with various actors, including McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail), Gwyneth Paltrow (uncredited), and Ashley Judd (who portrays herself in the film), as well as other women—largely former Miramax and the Weinstein Company staff. (Sarah Ann Masse, who plays NYT reporter Emily Steel in the film, is actually one of the many actors who has accused Weinstein of sexual assault, according to the New York Times.)
As a journalist who’s spent years covering the ways sexual assault survivors are failed by the criminal justice system, the journey is all too familiar. It takes a lot of work, and rightly so, to earn someone’s trust with the promise to protect their stories and identities. It’s hard to know these stories, to know how your sources were abandoned by various systems, and still be unsure if an article will ever materialize. And, as Twohey wonders twice in the movie, will anyone really care if and when the stories do run? But what the movie (and the book) lacks is a sense of compassion for the women whose stories these two reporters continue to tell.
Much like Ryan Murphy’s Dahmer, which came under fire for how it shaped the stories of Dahmer’s victims and profited from them, I couldn’t help watching She Said and wondering how these women felt seeing the stories of their assaults dramatized. Really, She Said is the story of two reporters (and their bosses—Patricia Clarkson does a bang-up job as NYT editor Rebecca Corbett), not of Weinstein’s survivors or his downfall. The film seeks to put Kantor and Twohey in the spotlight, which sits uncomfortably with me.
Both Mulligan and Kazan are charismatic actors, capable of eliciting audiences’ emotions. But their performances feel flat and one-dimensional here. Why do they put up what can only be described as walls, to give off such a cool, almost removed, impression? The book gave a similar portrayal of the two reporters, as if they felt unable to show emotion about the survivors for fear of accusations of bias. And I think that’s where they lost me.
When I read She Said shortly after its Sept. 2019 release, it felt like a book written too soon to fully understand the impact and the fallout of #MeToo. The movie feels even more premature. It closes with text noting Weinstein’s 23-year prison sentence and a generalization of how workplaces have changed to remove predators and eliminate sexual misconduct, but it misses the mark. Only five years later, change is still painfully slow going. Yes, Weinstein was sentenced—and is currently on trial again in Los Angeles for sexual assault—but, in August, the New York Court of Appeals granted him approval to appeal his first conviction. Though the book continues past the Weinstein story to cover Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, the movie doesn’t touch that—perhaps because Ford’s story didn’t prevent Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Bill Cosby has been released from jail. Louis CK’s latest comedy album just received a Grammy nomination (an award he also won last year). And just two months after winning his defamation lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, who wrote about her experience as a survivor of intimate partner violence for the Washington Post, Johnny Depp announced his return to directing after more than two decades. Even the New York Times worries we’re backsliding.
Spotlight, the 2015 film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic child sex abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, feels like an easy comparison. By the time the movie came out, more than 10 years had passed since the newspaper won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for these stories. I wonder what 12 years of distance and social change would have added to She Said.
This is not to say that the stories Kantor and Twohey broke, and the stories of survivors, don’t matter. They matter greatly. I believe it’s one of the few ways we can end rape culture. But the work doesn’t stop with exposing one powerful man’s horrific deeds and a victory lap taken too soon feels cheap.
She Said opens everywhere on Nov. 18.