From its opening frames, She Said sets the tone for the harrowing story that’s about to unfold, creating tension right off the bat. The film opens on a flashback to 1992 in Ireland, where a young woman walking her dog stumbles onto a movie set and winds up getting a job in the industry. A dream come true, right? Through a couple of brief scenes, we see the beauty and promise of this young woman — barely more than a girl still, really — on the cusp of discovering her passion for the film industry and growing into young adulthood. She is confident, excited, bright, and joyous. And then we see her running down a street alone, hastily dressed and clutching her clothing around herself as she sobs, her eyes wide with trauma and fear.
The contrast of these opening moments effectively sets the stage for this narrative retelling of how New York Times investigative reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke that paper’s explosive front-page story about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein paying off accusers of sexual abuse and harassment, which ignited Weinstein’s downfall as well as the global expansion of the #MeToo movement that was founded in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke.
Kantor and Twohey’s Times piece was published on Oct. 5, 2017; Weinstein was fired by the board of his studio The Weinstein Company three days later. A few days later, the Times story was followed by an equally explosive New Yorker piece by Ronan Farrow detailing accusations of rape and sexual assault, and the two publications ultimately jointly shared a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service for their respective work on these stories.
She Said tells the story of how the Times piece was meticulously assembled, as told from the perspectives of Kantor, Twohey, and the survivors and witnesses, including actress Ashley Judd (playing herself in the film), who ultimately came forward to bring an end to Weinstein’s reign.
The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who previously penned Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida), beautifully balances carrying a heavy thread of underlying theme and effectively dramatizing this very personal and visceral story as it unfolds. The script weaves seamlessly back and forth between the past and present through the impact on the lives of the women Weinstein victimized and the toll the lengthy investigation takes on Kantor and Twohey — both working moms themselves who juggled parenthood, their partners, and postpartum depression while doing the challenging work of putting this groundbreaking story together.
The script was written at the same time that Kantor and Twohey were writing their book of the same name, and the film’s producers worked closely with the two of them and Lenkiewicz in deciding how to frame the film. This is a story about the survivors taking back their power far more than it’s about the man who took it from them, and it’s about Kantor and Twohey, whose relentless commitment to seeing this ugly story through allowed their voices to be heard.
Yes, we hear Weinstein’s voice on an audio recording, but Weinstein himself (portrayed by an actor) is only briefly shown, and even then, only from behind. Other than the one Weinstein recording, descriptions of the things that happened are from the survivors’ own voices or words. The terrible things that happened are implied as the camera’s lens slowly moves past a pile of clothing and undergarments on a hotel carpet, or lingers on the steamy glass of a hotel shower as a quavering voice recounts what happened there. We see the trauma of the past revealed in the present, and in the haunted faces of the women the survivors grew up to be.
Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan are excellently cast as Twohey and Kantor, respectively, embodying these women and their unwavering commitment to this story through their long investigation — the late nights, dead ends, and frustrations, not to mention the countless sacrifices to their parenting and personal lives, all in the name of revealing the truth. That’s the commitment that investigative journalism demands.
On the supporting cast side of things, Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher, as the Times’ then-assistant managing editor Rebecca Corbett and then-executive editor Dean Baquet, are both terrific and entertaining in their roles. Samantha Morton delivers a deeply heartfelt and emotional turn as Zelda Parker, a former Miramax employee who helps bring Weinstein down; Jennifer Ehle and Angela Yeoh as survivors as Laura Madden and Rowena Chiu, two of the survivors, are both wonderful as well, heartbreakingly evoking what was taken from these women decades earlier, as well as their fear and their courage in coming forward.
Director Maria Schrader executes the vision for this film beautifully, keeping her lens centered on the women in this story as Kantor and Twohey use journalistic instinct and empathy to cut through the tight knot of Hollywood industry secrecy that protected Weinstein for decades. Schrader knows when to amp the tension up and when to let it drop; the film is effectively peppered with smaller moments of tension and release that increase until we hit a pivotal scene near the end that finds Kantor on a phone call with a source in the newsroom as the rest of the team waits tensely nearby to hear the outcome. You could feel the packed crowd in the screening collectively holding their breath as well.
The taut score by Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) expertly plays along with the beats of the characters’ journey with some gorgeous use of cello solos throughout, emotionally gripping the audience as the tension ramps up to its spot-on, perfect ending.
Speaking of endings: so many times I see films like this and as we get near the end I’ll think ‘Okay, stop now, this is the perfect way to end this!’ only to have it drag on for a few more unnecessary scenes as it limps to the finish. She Said is the rare film that actually ends at exactly the right moment, especially given the kind of story that it is. That final moment releases all of the collective tension we’ve been holding as an audience throughout the film, and in that moment, I could hear the folks around me exhale deeply and release their own emotions in a flood of tears.
Sexual abuse and harassment, and male-dominated power and privilege, have been the secret dirty grease underlying Hollywood’s machine for as long as the industry has existed; whispers of Weinstein’s improprieties were circulating around Hollywood for decades before Kantor and Twohey finally broke through the wall of secrecy and enablement surrounding him to shatter his powerful hold, but he wasn’t the first or only mogul to abuse his power.
She Said is simultaneously the most “Hollywood” of stories and a story that is larger than Hollywood, shining a light on this darkness while revealing the bravery, commitment to justice, and fierce journalistic integrity that it took to take this one man down and shift an entire industry, if not the world.
She Said is now playing exclusively in theaters.