This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.
In a lot of ways, She Said is a pretty standard journalism procedural, tracing the development of a famous bombshell story from its earliest newsroom discussions to its hard-won moment of publication. But there’s something both discomfiting and fascinating about how, for this particular story, the call is coming from inside the house: Maria Schrader’s film, adapted from the nonfiction book, chronicles how New York Times reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) assembled a story about mega-powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and a litany of harassment, abuse and assault allegations from throughout his decades in the business. Familiar actors play real-life characters, discussing stories from real-life actors including Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd—who appears as herself.
The strangeness of watching Judd recreate her real-life interviews with movie versions of the reporters is not supposed to be the spectacle of She Said. There’s not supposed to be a spectacle at all; the movie is obviously designed to be a sobering yet inspiring examination of journalistic research and tenacity, along the lines of Spotlight. That process is compelling, and the filmmakers include a wrinkle less often utilized in male-dominated journalism stories: Showing who is underfoot during all of this extensive legwork. Twohey and Kantor are both working mothers, and aren’t afforded the luxury of neatly parceled-out late-second-act blow-ups about how they’re neglecting their families in favor of work. The film simply shows how much of this work happens while pushing a stroller, attempting to manage bedtime or battling postpartum depression; in one ruefully funny moment, Kantor scribbles a Netflix password out for her older daughter to get her out of the room for a crucial phone call. (Naturally, other family members barge in shortly thereafter.)
Schrader obviously wants to generate empathy for working women beyond the field of journalism; she mixes introductory shots of Mulligan and Kazan with other women on the move on New York City streets, some with kids and some without. Centering this dynamic is a canny way to keep She Said from becoming a By Hollywood, For Hollywood story of an industry reckoning without forsaking Mulligan and Kazan’s charisma. Mulligan in particular looks starrier than ever here, even (or especially) as Twohey’s fuse shortens. She’s the smoother operator, the one more likely to sardonically negotiate details from Weinstein’s lawyer, and a counterpoint to Kazan’s wider-eyed version of Kantor, who originates the story.
True to its title, much of She Said consists of conversations, where Twohey and Kantor attempt to push past reluctance, fear and a litany of NDAs to get Weinstein’s victims—from all levels of the film industry—to talk about their horrific experiences. The movie equals the reporters’ sincerity but not their shrewdness; it’s all too eager to explain what it’s doing at every turn. Purposes are stated, clearly and cleanly, at pitch meetings with barely a hint of conflict: “Let’s interrogate the whole system.” The obligatory moment of possible doubt is depicted by Twohey and Kantor asking each other if they regret taking on this complicated and back-breaking story that they now worry may not make any difference. Spoiler: They do not regret it! Schrader pushes the somber score and just-the-facts cinematography as close to pure explication as possible. There is visual storytelling, but little in the way of mood or evocation.
Occasionally, the movie figures out when to hold back. At one point, Kantor is explaining some professional backstory to her colleague, only to be interrupted by a phone call; she never returns to the subject. One harrowing Weinstein story is depicted not with dramatizations, but a series of shots of the hotel room where it takes place, with both people removed from the tableaux; only objects and signifiers remain. Weinstein himself isn’t seen—or at least, not full on. He’s depicted as an angry voice on the telephone and, later, a hulking, faceless figure whom Twohey stares down. This works well enough, but seems like a half-measure compared to Kitty Green’s The Assistant, whose Weinstein figure was even more elusive, and a lot scarier, maybe because that movie allowed more to remain unspoken. (This Harvey is depicted, with mordant amusement, as being unaccountably obsessed with whether Gwyneth Paltrow in particular has participated in the big story.)
In retrospect, Green’s film feels like the distillation of experiences that the She Said interview scenes are trying to summarize. It also has the tension of a thriller, while Schrader’s film is too polite for any of that. It wouldn’t necessarily be accurate to call She Said self-congratulatory, because the glory goes to the Times, not Hollywood’s ability to right years of institutional wrongs, and because Mulligan and Kazan are convincing in their roles. But there is something dramatically squishy about a big investigative story that turns on a show of strength from Ashley Judd, playing herself. As much as the movie wants to depict unfussy grit, hints of an award ceremony still shimmer on its surface.
Director: Maria Schrader
Writer: Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Andre Braugher, Patricia Clarkson
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.