In #MeToo film ‘She Said,’ survivor courage resonates

Actors Carey Mulligan (left) and Zoe Kazan portray New York Times journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor in “She Said.”

“She Said” doggedly chronicles the 2017 investigation by two New York Times reporters, Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), into the sexual assault charges against Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein. Their exposé helped kick-start the #MeToo movement and won them a Pulitzer. Hollywood, no doubt, is hoping for Oscars.

Based on the 2019 book of the same name by Kantor and Twohey, the film, directed by Maria Schrader and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, doesn’t add much to the existing record. What it does do, when it’s good, is something the news headlines could not: It dramatizes the survivors’ voices on camera. 

“She Said” is a procedural with a foregone conclusion. That’s why it’s dogged. (Weinstein, who is very briefly portrayed in the film, is currently serving prison time for a conviction in New York while also standing trial in Los Angeles on additional charges of sexual assault.) “Spotlight” and “All the President’s Men” – obvious models for “She Said” – were far savvier about anatomizing the inner workings of their investigations. To a lesser extent, so was “Bombshell,” the 2019 movie about the women who brought down Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. 

Why We Wrote This

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The story of Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning, which started with the journalism that exposed Harvey Weinstein, is well known. But a new film highlights the courage involved in bringing forth the truth.

In “She Said,” we keep getting lectured to about the significance of what we are witnessing. When the reporters’ editor, played by Patricia Clarkson, says to her staff, “Why is sexual harassment so pervasive and so hard to address?” she might as well be addressing us.

We tramp through the familiar paces: Sources refuse to go on the record, doors are slammed in reporters’ faces, shifty lawyers wheedle. Some of this is still compelling. So many newspaper movies have skimped on the sheer grind of pursuing a story that the deglamorization of the process here is a useful corrective. Up to a point. A little pizazz didn’t hurt “All the President’s Men.” Even though some famous film star names, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s, get bandied about, and even though Ashley Judd, one of Weinstein’s survivors, actually plays herself, much of the movie has a low-wattage, by-the-book single-mindedness. 

In an admirable, if meager, attempt to portray the two women as more than just tenacious crusaders, their domestic lives are briefly sketched. Twohey, who had reported on sexual accusations against presidential candidate Donald Trump, is shown to have suffered from postpartum depression – as if dealing with Weinstein wasn’t enough. Kantor worries about balancing her married life as a working mother with the demands of the investigation, which takes her to California, London, and Wales in pursuit of witnesses willing to go on the record about Weinstein. Both Mulligan and Kazan are credible but can’t quite shake the film’s attempt to emblematize the journalists as icons. 

More powerful, and the best reason to see the movie, are some of the supporting performances. Samantha Morton plays Zelda Perkins, a former Miramax employee who, years before, ineffectually confronted Weinstein about his assaultive treatment of an assistant. The matter-of-fact deliberateness of her disclosure to Kantor is chilling. Her rage, tempered, still seethes after all this time. The other standout performance is from Jennifer Ehle, who plays Laura Madden, an Irish woman who was sexually attacked by Weinstein back in 1992, when she was young and wide-eyed. Her eventual choice to go on the record about what happened to her is hard-won, and Ehle, with unwavering emotional clarity, drives home just how difficult that decision was for her.

Yes, it’s notable that Hollywood has chosen to make a movie about its sexual transgressions. It’s also commendable that the filmmakers chose not to show any scenes of sexual violence – although they do make use of an actual, sinister tape of Weinstein, recorded by one of the survivors, as he attempts to trap her. I just wish the film wasn’t so puffed by its own sense of mission. The reason Ehle and Morton are so effective is because they snap “She Said” out of its self-righteousness. They put a human face on a crime statistic. That’s what great acting can do.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor's film critic. “She Said” is rated R for language and descriptions of sexual assault. 

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