Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and misconduct.
On October 5th, 2017, The New York Times published an exposé on film producer and Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein’s extensive history of sexual harrasment and abuse. While Weinstein’s behavior had been an open secret in Hollywood for decades, the story sparked the widespread popularity and attention for the long-standing #MeToo movement, a reckoning that reverberated in both national and international institutions from sports to politics to religion to finance.
In the five years that have passed since Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace, #MeToo has profoundly reshaped the way we talk about sexual harassment and rape culture. Adapted from the 2019 book of the same name, She Said (2022) doesn’t directly grapple with the impacts of the article that started it all; instead, it follows authors Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carrie Mulligan) in their at-times harrowing journey to bringing the story to light.
She Said begins in the aftermath of another sexual harrassment scandal that shook the U.S. (though not meaningfully enough): the leak of the Trump Access Hollywood tape in which he described using his power to force himself onto women without their consent. Meanwhile, Twohey, who helped break subsequent stories about Trump’s inappropriate behavior, is harassed and intimidated by anonymous men for her work breaking other stories about sexual harassment. As Trump celebrates his presidential win, the message is clear: sexual harassment is treated flippantly, even by the highest positions in the country. While this kind of historical backdrop can lead to extrapolation or strained connection between events, the Trump parallel is valuable in contextualizing both Twohey’s work and the broader attitudes about sexual harrasment at the time.
Nearly simultaneous with the Trump tapes, The New York Times revealed Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harrassment settlement, and, as She Said tells it, the paper’s top priority suddenly becomes investigating similar issues across industries. Editor Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) asks a group of writers, including Jodi, “why is sexual harassment so pervasive and so hard to address?” While the question is unsubtle (as is much of the film’s dialogue), it becomes Jodi’s obsession. But one of the necessary staples of journalism films is a character with fervent dedication to pursuing the truth, and both Jodi and Megan provide that in spades, repeatedly setting aside their home lives and personal safety to bring these women’s story to light. In this regard, Mulligan is the most convincing of the two, powerfully conveying Megan’s frustrations, grief, and ultimate triumph. Kazan, on the other hand, verges on caricature, occasionally cheapening the weight of intensely emotional scenes.
The film strives to add nuance and dimension to its portrayal of the two protagonists, a noble aim that is poorly executed in practice. By including scenes from Megan and Jodi’s personal lives, She Said actually further flattens them, focusing heavily on their identities as wives and mothers and therefore defining them by their relationships to others, rather than by their own traits. By the end of the film, viewers come away with very little understanding of Megan and Jodi as holistic individuals—it appears that their only discernible qualities are being journalists and being women. Moreover, the scenes featuring their families contribute to no broader storyline or narrative, and instead take up valuable airtime that could have been better used to humanize Megan and Jodi, or further shed light on the survivors’ experiences.
She Said also suffers from an over-reliance on female grief as an unnecessary common thread between the journalists and the story they are investigating. In addition to the survivors’ understandably distressing accounts of misconduct at the hands of a powerful man, the film states that one of them, Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle) is also undergoing treatment for breast cancer, an illness that overwhelmingly affects women. Meanwhile, Megan and Jodi initially bond over their shared experience of postpartum depression, an inherently female form of suffering.
While it would be an oversight to disregard these elements of the story entirely, the film over-emphasizes and under-develops them to the point of being reductive. Besides the fact that they are female journalists and deal with distinctly female experiences, the film makes no constructive argument about the impact of Megan and Jodi’s positionality as women on their journalism; meanwhile, Laura’s illness is used merely as a plot device to raise the stakes of the climax when the journalists are begging their sources to speak on the record. In this way, the underlying current of grief and suffering on the part of all the female characters lingers hollowly over the film. Disappointingly, She Said fumbles the opportunity to present an empowering narrative of solidarity and resistance, instead seeming to exploit the pain of its supposed heroes.
In contrast to its heavy-handed and oversimplified argument about female suffering, She Said shines in its reconstructions of testimony from Weinstein’s victims. In a scene featuring the sting tape Ambra Battilana Gutierrez recorded to catch Weinstein’s behavior, the camera painstakingly tracks through elegant hotel hallways. The decadence of the hotel feels skin-crawlingly grotesque in contrast to Gutierrez’s insistent pleas of “I want to leave” and “I don’t feel comfortable.”
Similarly, as Laura recounts her assault, the camera rests on a pile of her clothes, which seem childlike in contrast to the ornate hotel decoration. As the camera lingers, looking at Laura’s clothes feels like looking at a second skin—her assault strips her of a piece of herself, and that transformation takes place in front of our eyes without further exploiting her assault.
The choice to leave Weinstein’s heinous acts visually behind closed doors rejects the often-salacious and harmful desire for a complete reconstruction of events. By letting Weinstein’s victims speak for themselves, She Said engages in the necessary work of elevating survivors and resists re-traumatizing survivors through graphic depictions of assault.
However, She Said succumbs to an unabashedly Hollywood approach to a distinctly Hollywood story—at times, the film’s indulgently glossy production style conflicts with its narrative commitment to uplifting rather than exploiting survivors. Composer Nicholas Britell’s melodramatic orchestral score pulses throughout the film’s scenes, and often overpowers deliberately sparse moments in the dialogue. Meanwhile, the elegantly curated dark visuals sharply contrast the film’s gritty, deeply personal subject matter.
On the surface, She Said offers a fast-paced, riveting behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of this era’s biggest investigative works. It’s fascinating to watch Megan and Jodi methodically uncover the story, slowly gaining more intel and increasingly helpful sources. Yet even here, the film seems to bite off more than it can chew, introducing several plotlines that are never fully addressed in a satisfying or conclusive way. The film opens with ominous imagery of Megan facing harassment for her prior coverage of Trump, and Jodi later alludes to feeling like she is being followed, but beyond that, the film never returns to explore this aspect of the journalistic experience.
Viewers who closely followed the Weinstein story in real time may recall accounts from other journalists describing Weinstein’s uniquely threatening efforts to surveil, intimidate, and silence the reporters bringing his misconduct to light. Even if the journalists pushed forth despite the threats, Weinstein’s aggressive response was undoubtedly a key part of the unfolding of the investigations, and it was therefore disappointing that She Said could not offer more insight into the nature of these tactics and their ramifications on the journalists’ pursuit of the truth. Weinstein’s intimidation never materializes as an effective source of dramatic tension; for better or worse, the fairly mundane stream of journalistic hurdles Megan and Jodi face drives the film’s momentum.
The stumbles in She Said are not insignificant—by relying on reductive tropes of female pain, it fails to make any truly radical arguments about the persistent sexual harassment and abuse that run rampant in Hollywood. Still, for a film that historicizes an extremely recent past, it manages to provide some insight into the long-term importance of Twohey and Kantor’s work and the difficulty of bringing these kinds of stories to light. It’s a valiant first effort at grappling with the #MeToo movement, but it shouldn’t be the last.