‘She Said’ dances on the corpse of systemic sexual predation, which is alive and well

Kazan and Mulligan try their hardest, but can’t always energize into their weakly written characters. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

2/10 As a journalist and someone who followed the Weinstein revelations closely, She Said is an absolutely infuriating film to watch. It feels like pulling teeth trying to get this to turn into a real journalism movie about the discovery of information or, more importantly, an honest look at the ongoing struggle kicked off by the Weinstein story.

On Oct. 5, 2017, The New York Times published a bombshell investigation into high-profile Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein detailing allegations of sexual misconduct and hush-money payoffs that stretched back decades. The explosion rippled across the internet, kicking off the #metoo movement and a global reckoning with sexual assault and the treatment of women as objects, demolishing The Weinstein Company and eventually triggering prosecution against Weinstein that resulted in a 23-year prison sentence. In 2019, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the reporters who wrote and won Pulitzer Prizes for the investigation, published “She Said,” a book detailing how they organized the evidence against Weinstein and convinced women to speak to them on the record. The movie rights were sold before the book was printed, and by 2022, Annapurna Pictures and Plan B Entertainment have squeezed out She Said, starring Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan as Kantor and Twohey.

She Said has a very difficult relationship with the facts and the emotions stirred up by the Weinstein scandal, seeming to want to alternate between both and constantly making the wrong choice about which scenes to play for information and which to play for emotional impact. The end result looks sort of like an All the President’s Men knockoff the way a lot of weaker journalism films do, settling with focusing on Kantor’s and Twohey’s friendship as the emotional core and leaving the Shakespearean-in-magnitude betrayal and rage of the Weinstein story to be performed by the second-tier single-scene actors they bring in to interview.

She Said is constantly bizarre and frequently alienating to a person who watched with alarm as these events played out, and these interview scenes are the most distressing example. A character describes being raped, and instead of sounding like a human being describing her own experience, it sounds like she’s reading a book report on her character’s assault, with facts and precise dates and who was there and nothing about the feeling of being assaulted or the personal impact it had on her. A lot of the lines sound like that, like they’re describing a court case instead of the human experiences that underlay it.

Kazan and Mulligan are lifeless in the lead roles, but that’s because the movie’s structure withholds the traction they need to put a good performance down. Kantor and Twohey are depicted as having the correct idea, to leverage the hush-money payouts into quotable sources, immediately, spending no time struggling with other methods. Instead of watching them discover new information, they’ll exposit it to their editors or it will be blurted out in interviews, the most confrontational of which are given to executive editor Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher). The document-scrutinizing and source-working that should be the film’s main body is mostly glossed over, but the movie instead makes time for their husbands to complain about the long hours, weird filler scenes and asides for rude come-ons at a bar meeting. I don’t know who thought She Said needed exactly one scene of good old-fashioned street harassment to complement its Weinstein scandal, but that person got their way.

These two veteran reporters and New York City women in their 40s are portrayed alternately as tough-as-nails women of the world, but also babes in the woods who are just now discovering that sexual assault is bad and systemic cover-ups of it are rampant for dramatic effect.

For all the other mistakes this movie could make, She Said also falls into the obvious trap for any movie about Hollywood malfeasance – it’s got a straight line to the malfeasance. The film got some bad headlines in July around the involvement of executive producer Brad Pitt, who continued to work with Weinstein after two partners had privately related horror stories to him. Image courtesy The Weinstein Company.

Probably the best example of She Said’s bizarre nonchalance toward its own subject matter is the scene where Kantor tells a potential source’s husband that the source, absent in the scene, was sexually assaulted by Weinstein a decade ago. I don’t really need to say that revealing someone else’s history of sexual violence is an extraordinarily heinous thing to do in any context, but for a reporter trying to convince a source that she has the delicacy to tell this story properly to the entire world, it’s outright malpractice. The scene is played for emotion, as if Kantor is just now discovering through this experience the gravity of the story she’s reporting on.

It’s the little things that really give She Said away, though. Early in the film, one of the reporters is depicted as driving, in the middle of the day in her car that she, a New York City journalist, owns, from Manhattan to Queens. The road is depicted as – well, it’s not a real road. She would be taking the Midtown Tunnel here, but the scene appears to be shot on Interstate 278 as it curves away from the city toward Connecticut, you can see the Manhattan skyline in the background – the road is depicted as slowly thinning out in the middle of the day as she goes from the big city of Manhattan to the rural boondoggle of Queens.

It’s moments like this, where She Said discards the specificity of New York City and The New York Times and the actual people who actually did these things five short years ago in favor of generic film shorthand to express an emotion that shouldn’t even apply to this scene, that make the back of my hair stand up and scream how wrong this film is. It’s much more interested in formula than the specifics of its own subject matter, like a meat grinder turning every crevice of what was once a specific animal into a uniform little tube of sausage.

The entire film has the air of a victory lap, which is extremely hard to watch from a story with such a murky legacy. Oct. 3 of this year, The New York Times published a five-year look back on the #metoo movement written by Kantor and Twohey themselves about the waning results and lingering questions about how the cultural shift their story caused has or should translate into legal action. The framing only becomes more irresponsible when you know that journalists and police had been trying to nail Weinstein for more than 10 years. To take nothing away from the Herculean efforts of Kantor, Twohey, Baquet and all the other reporters who worked on this and every other version of this story, publishing in October 2017 can only be seen as a colossal systemic failure.

As the film winds down, it cuts twice to filler shots of Kantor and Twohey all alone in a dark, empty office, and I can’t take this! It’s the New York Times, people don’t leave that office! I understand it’s a stock part of film language to show them working after hours with little support, but they’re got the support of the largest news organization in history here!

Many reporters speculate the fact that the story is so unsettled contributed to She Said’s historically poor performance, opening at no. 6 with $2.2 million which has been described as one of the worst openings of all time for a movie in more than 2,000 theaters. Deadline Hollywood called the movie’s very existence “anticlimactic,” and that’s a great description – it came out just 10 days after Weinstein’s second sexual assault trial began in Los Angeles! That’s how unsettled this movie’s subject matter is!

Then Kantor and Twohey show up for a critical interview in similar white sundresses and laugh and say “OMG, we’re like reporting twins!” and I have to remember who this movie is for. It feels like a victory lap because it’s made for people who think this story is a victory. It’s effeminate and diminutive because it’s for sexists who don’t recognize feminism that isn’t at a surface level. It goes out of the way to give Kantor, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, a scene to talk about their prison number tattoos, because you gotta bring up that Holocaust! No Oscars without that Holocaust!

It’s not for people who follow these things, and it’s certainly not for Kantor and Twohey. They’re still working.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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