Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of film production company, Miramax, was the driving force behind a string of Hollywood hits. From his prison cell in California, where he is currently serving a 23-year sentence for sexual offences, Weinstein must have taken cold comfort from the poor box office that greeted She Said, which garnered only US $2.2 million on its opening weekend. It’s not the kind of production he would have backed.
One might imagine at least fifty percent of the population lining up to see Maria Schrader’s chronicle of the New York Times investigation of 2017 that brought Weinstein to justice and helped give birth to the #MeToo movement. If this isn’t happening it may be because the Weinstein story is too well known to command attention, or because the wave of sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men has now subsided. There’s also the possibilty that although Weinstein may have been an iconic figure in the industry, he was never enough of a celebrity for his fall to capture the public imagination.
She Said is a familiar kind of movie: a journalistic procedural in which a pair of intrepid reporters overcome massive resistance to build a damning case against a powerful opponent. The gold standard is probably Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976), in which Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman played Woodward and Bernstein, who helped bring down Richard Nixon. More recently there’s been Truth (2015), The Post (2017), and Spotlight, which took out the Best Picture Award at the 2016 Oscars.
Most of these films follow the same pattern with minor variations. As the story unfolds it seems impossible to get victims to go on the record, while powerful vested interests attempt to shut down the investigation. Our heroes push on, against all odds, and achieve a heroic victory.
That’s pretty much the case with She Said, in which there is no real suspense because we already know the outcome. The interest lies in the gradual piecing-together of the exposé, as the journalists work to get Weinstein’s victims to testify. Along the way we delve into the internal workings of the New York Times, and the private lives of the reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan).
Perhaps the only real mystery concerns whether or not we will meet Harvey Weinstein in person. Schrader settles for his voice and his back, which feels slightly comical, but it would have been hard to do it any other way.
The film begins in the lead-up to the 2016 election, with Twohey interviewing one of the women who claimed to have been sexually harrassed by Donald Trump. As the multiple revelations about Trump’s treatment of women continued to pile up, it made little difference to his march towards the White House. This sets the scene for what is to follow, as it shows how very hard it is to bring down a rich and powerful man for sexual misconduct and reveals the complacency of the general public on this issue.
We watch as a pregnant Twohey gets death threats from Trump fans, and eventually slumps into post-partum depression. Returning from months off work she joins Kantor in the investigation into Weinstein. As a mother of two, Kantor is sympathetic with Twohey’s emotional issues, and plays life coach. The story will bind them together, as they struggle to undo the bonds of secrecy and the many non-disclosure agreements that shield Weinstein from his day of judgement.
The legal protections are a huge hurdle, but by far the biggest problem in getting abused women to talk is the psychological and career damage that is entailed. As one of the most powerful men in the film industry, Weinstein had no qualms about letting his victims know that he could make or break their careers. If they co-operated, they had the chance to be one of his “favourites” and score a leading role. Those who refused his advances or complained about him, could consider themselves finished.
This is not exactly an unusual story in the film industry, but the sheer scale of Weinstein’s offences was extraordinary. What’s truly disturbing is the degree to which these crimes were enabled and covered up by the industry itself. Twohey and Kantor find that Miramax has undertaken 8-12 major pay-outs and NDAs, but we’re led to believe the real figure is much higher. When the story finally broke, more than 80 women would come forward with specific accusations.
This is all true and makes for engrossing viewing. Where She Said loses credibility is in the rather saccharine portrayal of Twohey and Kantor, who approach their task with saint-like devotion. Always caring and respectful with their interview subjects, mutually supportive, doting mothers and wives, fighters in the cause of justice… they don’t resemble many of the journalists I’ve known during decades in the trade.
Hardly more credible is the picture we get of the New York Times, in which senior editors Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) and Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher), act like benevolent parents rather than hard-bitten newshounds. The discussions between the journos and their editors are like therapy sessions rather than the kind of spiky, difficult confrontations that might be expected.
The interview subject lives in Seattle? Cornwall? Just get on a plane. This a scenario that would make journalists’ eyes roll today, when most news organisations are loathe to stump up for a bus fare. Many are the stories that never make it to print because they would cost too much to pursue, or because staff can’t be spared from more humdrum tasks.
The golden age of investigative journalism is long gone (if it ever existed) – killed off by financial considerations. She Said comes across as nostalgia for a time when the press had a much greater willingness to pursue a problematic story, and more skilful and experienced reporters.
It’s a real story, but also a feel-good fantasy, and the same might be said of #MeToo revolution. Has the world really changed? Are powerful men no longer putting the hard word on vulnerable female employees and getting away with it? The predators may be a bit more circumspect and cautious, but one imagines old habits die hard. As long as money and power are concentrated in the hands of a few unscrupulous individuals one there will always be abuses, and that concentration is only increasing. Stay glued to your seats, the next big journalistic procedural can’t be far away.
Directed by Maria Schrader
Written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, after the New York Times investigation by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Morton, Ashley Judd, Anastasia Barzee, angela Yeoh, Peter Friedman, Zach Grenier
USA, rated M, 129 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 December, 2022