If, like me, you consider “All the President’s Men” to be one of the most thrilling movies ever made, it’s remarkable to consider that it was released in 1976, just four years after the Watergate robbery. The saga of Richard Nixon’s corruption and downfall had saturated the culture, but every moment in “All the President’s Men” tingled with discovery. That’s why it’s a movie you can watch over and over again. When a journalistic drama on the big screen is built around a news item this epic, it has to give you some version of that feeling. “Spotlight,” the 2015 Oscar-winning drama about the Boston Globe’s unraveling of child sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, wasn’t as great as “All the President’s Men,” but it was also mixed with a sense of Discovery. This is where the film not only anatomizes the horrible behavior of abusive priests, but also the omerta from the church.
Given that, the bar is set high for “She Said,” an explosive drama about the New York Times uncovering of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017. Like Watergate, the exposure of Weinstein’s crimes — not just the monstrosity of a movie mogul, but the whole system of secrecy and denial that dominated the arena of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and beyond – was a story that shocked and changed the world. The reverberations of it are still absorbed; Weinstein himself, who is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence, has not even finished being tried. So you might be wondering how, exactly, “She Said” is going to capture what this story looked like before it became a story.
The film, written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and directed by Maria Schrader (it’s based on the book of the same title by Times journalists Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey), accomplishes this by tapping into something that has always been a staple of the saga. Weinstein, but one I never experienced as clearly as I did while watching “She Said”: the pervasive and unfathomable fear that reigned over Harvey Weinstein’s victims.
The film begins in 2016, when Twohey (Carey Mulligan), an investigative reporter for The Times, asks several women to publicly accuse Donald Trump (then a presidential candidate) of sexual abuse. Fear is already everywhere. Trump, who phones Twohey to deny the charges, fumes with rage, and after the story is published, one of the accusers receives a bag of feces in the mail.
It’s not a big leap from Trump to Weinstein. When Kantor (Zoe Kazan) starts getting advice about Weinstein’s stalking behavior (and worse), she talks on the phone to Rose McGowan, Weinstein’s first accuser to go public, and even the furious McGowan is nervous about the idea. to register to participate in the story. She explains that she’s been burned before – by the Times and other outlets that pursued an expose on Weinstein only to drop it.
Twohey and Kantor start working together, and what they discover, talking to former Miramax employees, is that the woman there has been systematically traumatized – first by Harvey, with his litany of rituals harassing (the forced massages and the hot tubs, the stripping and the masturbation and, in some cases, the act of rape), and also by what happens next. If they talk, they will be shut out of the entertainment industry; Harvey has the power to do it with a phone call. And many have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements, meaning they will be prosecuted if they speak out. NDA culture becomes part of the system of oppression, a way to buy silence by demanding that these women give up their voice.
Beyond that, the sense of entitlement Weinstein brings to sexual abuse suggests that he is a man who lives outside the law, and therefore will stop at nothing. In “She Said,” we never see Weinstein’s face, but we hear him — on the phone and in Ambra Battilana Gutierrez’ chilling recording of her encounter with Harvey and his coercive tactics in the hallway of the Peninsula hotel. And we see him from behind, a man who behaves like an ogre. Fear, and the fight against it, is a key theme in “She Said.” The film places this fear – of assault, of unemployment, of shame, of desolation, of dark cars following you through the night – at the epicenter of the culture of abuse.
Following the pattern of “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” “She Said” is a taut, heavy, and absorbing film that intriguingly sticks to the cogs and bolts of what journalists do. When Twohey and Kantor begin showing up, often unannounced, at the homes of former Miramax assistants, the grim expression of terror on the women’s faces says more than their words. We see the journalists at home, juggling between work and husbands and children, and we feel their deep solidarity with the women they are trying to get to talk. Their stories connect former aides, movie stars (McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd, playing herself), as well as the financial executives who oversaw payments to silence Harvey’s victims. We see the journalistic juggling they have to do to create a sense of collective power in these women where there has been none. (There’s also the added pressure when they learn that Ronan Farrow is working on the same story at The New Yorker.) Strand by strand, Twohey and Kantor weave the story of a sinister corporate web with Harvey the poisonous spider. in its center.
In the brightly lit offices of the Times, editors add a dash of dramatic tension – terse, worldly Patricia Clarkson as Rebecca Corbett, who will never say how badly she wants this story (although we have it read in the dance of Clarkson’s eyes), and Andre Braugher as Dean Baquet, a born negotiator who knows how to handle a terrorist like Weinstein. Mulligan, now shrewd and now explosive, and Kazan, who under Kantor’s Poindexter facade creates a superb x-ray of the departing journalistic mind, are a dynamic and, at times, moving team of ace reporters.
Yet for all that works about it, “She Said,” after its superb first hour, isn’t built for electrifying payoff quite the way you’d expect. It’s not so much that we know what’s to come that the story ceases to muster a sense of complexity. Can Twohey and Kantor register one or more of Harvey’s abuse survivors? Without it, they have no history. Yet, waiting for that watershed moment, the film begins to feel more focused, less epic than what the Weinstein saga has become: a prophecy of how the world was to change. “She Said” remains compelling, but in the end, the deliverance you feel is more redux than revelation.
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