When allegations of sexual harassment and assault against producer Harvey Weinstein were published in the New York Times and the New Yorker in October 2017, it hit Hollywood like a bomb. The stories ignited the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, prompted an industrywide reckoning with a culture of harassment, bullying and silence and ultimately led to Weinstein’s conviction for rape and sexual assault in New York in February 2020 and his subsequent imprisonment. Weinstein is currently on trial for rape and sexual assault in Los Angeles, where his victims have been offering gut-wrenching testimony about their experiences.
These events are fresh, but at times it can feel like 2017 was eons ago. Though it’s recent history, the incredible bravery of the women who came forward and the journalists who told their story bears repeating, as in Maria Schrader’s “She Said,” the film adaptation of the book based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the story after months of investigation and decades of Weinstein successfully silencing his victims.
Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan portray Kantor and Twohey, respectively, in this no-nonsense journalistic drama in the vein of “All the President’s Men” or “Spotlight.” The screenplay, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is dense and errs on the side of being careful, almost clinical at times, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure here, as in the investigation, to get it exactly right.
The emphasis in “She Said” is on the process of information gathering and evidence, and it demonstrates how Kantor and Twohey did just that with the help of their team at the New York Times (Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher are particularly fantastic as tough but supportive editors Rebecca Corbett and Dean Baquet). Though merely telling this story is a decidedly feminist project, the focus is on the facts in this slow-burn drama that methodically builds to a moving and emotional crescendo.
Schrader’s directorial instincts counteract any stiffness in the script, showing us these women in the context of their world, surrounded by men, yes, but also by other women. Our heroines are constantly in motion, walking purposefully on crowded New York City streets, picking up calls from sources while caring for their children. Jodi scrawling the Netflix password on an envelope and handing it to her daughter while on the phone is one of the best visual jokes.
Natasha Braier’s cinematography captures the reality of the city, while editor Hansjörg Weissbrich montages their movement over interviews and story meetings. Though this is a wordy, dialogue-heavy film, much of the storytelling is visual, whether in the production design by Meredith Lippincott of the New York Times offices (spot the copy of Peter Biskind’s ‘90s indie film expose “Down and Dirty Pictures”), or in the costume design by Brittany Loar. Jodi and Megan sport the comfortable business casual of a reporter on the go and joke about how they’re “reporter twins,” but Megan’s booties and Jodi’s loafers speak to the subtle differences in their characters — Megan is the unflappable bulldog interviewer, peppering powerful men with probing questions, while Jodi is on the softer side, empathetically connecting with her sources and taking in their stories.
As to the details, Schrader keeps the focus on the women’s voices, nodding to the film’s title and to the power of offering one’s own testimony publicly. She never visualizes the assaults themselves; shots of a hotel corridor or a bathrobe discarded on a bed are chilling enough. Schrader also utilizes nonfiction to great effect, layering the real audio of victim Ambra Battilana Gutierrez over a slow montage of empty hotel shots. Weinstein victim Ashley Judd, who was one of the first women to go on the record with Kantor and Twohey, plays herself, and the moment she decides to speak out is a particularly powerful beat.
With care, thoughtfulness and rigor, Schrader and the filmmakers of “She Said” craft a film that shows the process of building this paradigm-shifting piece of journalism in a manner that is simultaneously thrilling and grindingly methodical, aided greatly by Nicholas Britell’s score.
Recent history can be so easy to forget, or to normalize, but “She Said” is a powerful reminder of the horrors of Weinstein’s wide-ranging crimes. It’s not a period at the end of this saga, but an underlining of what we already know, and a tribute to those who raised their voices, and those who listened and brought their stories out of the silence.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: R, for language and descriptions of sexual assault
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 18 in general release