When my graduate school days in New York were winding down, I went by the career center at NYU and saw a job posting for an entry-level position at Miramax, reading books and reporting back to the studio on their suitability for adapting into movies. It seemed like the sort of thing I could do, so I applied, but I never heard back. It’s funny, I didn’t think about that incident in my life until I read She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book about their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting for the New York Times that took down Harvey Weinstein. It made me grateful that I found my way into a workplace where nobody ever asked me to cover up anyone’s sexual assault, as script readers at Miramax apparently did. To cite a movie that Miramax produced, it was a Sliding Doors moment for me. Somewhere out there is an alternate universe where I am sitting in a prison in upstate New York after murdering one of the studio’s higher-ups.
Anyway, now I’ve seen the movie version of She Said, and if you want to be cynical about a Hollywood film celebrating the journalists who did the work that Hollywood wouldn’t do, by all means have at it. Me, I’ve got other issues.
The story begins in the summer of 2016, after the Times exposes Bill O’Reilly as a sexual predator and the editors sense an opening for other workplace harassment stories to break. Jodi (Zoe Kazan) receives a tip about rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood and starts making calls. Her investigation gains power when she teams up with Megan (Carey Mulligan), who has been hit with a double blow of postpartum depression after having her first child and receiving death threats after delving into the sexual history of one Donald J. Trump (voiced by James Austin Johnson). As they rack up frequent-flier miles traveling to Weinstein’s offices in L.A. and the U.K., the reporters find both former employees and famous actresses telling similar stories about being lured into hotel rooms where Harvey asked for a massage. The problem is, no one is willing to go on the record and face the inevitable firestorm by themselves.
The obvious model for this movie is Spotlight, which unfortunately is not a comparison that flatters She Said. The 2015 Best Picture winner gained power through its gradual accretion of detail, as its main characters went from individual stories of abuse to the system that kept abusers in place. The current movie doesn’t flow — Jodi starts out not knowing where to begin when contacting Hollywood people, and then in the next scene she’s suddenly talking to Ashley Judd (who portrays herself). Director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz want to underscore the stories of Weinstein’s victims, but while those are powerful in themselves, in the context of the movie they become numbing because they tell about the same man using the same methods to harass women.
The movie would have benefitted with more focus on the newsgathering process. One scene is related to us secondhand when it would have been more powerful enacted onscreen, when Weinstein’s attorney Lisa Bloom (Anastasia Barzee) appeals to Jodi as a fellow Jew, saying that writing the truth about Harvey will make all Jews look bad. Harvey himself (Mike Houston) is only seen from a distance and only heard as a voice issuing threats over the phone, and while I see the logic of this, it precludes a scene from the book when the confident movie mogul got in the face of the much smaller Kantor and assured her that he was worse than the stories about him suggested.
The story merits a serious approach, but the one taken by the filmmakers winds up defeating it. Bombshell is a movie about corporate sexism that’s inferior to this one in some respects, but its light touch makes it easier to digest. Tár is a more insightful film, partly because it dares to be told from the abuser’s point of view. She Said does have recommendable things like its two lead performances, as Kazan is particularly good at conveying a reporter’s gift for listening to people without judging them. It’s so businesslike and yearns so much for respectability that it squeezes much of the life out of itself.
Starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan. Directed by Maria Schrader. Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book. Rated R.