A #MeToo Movie Devoid of Sensationalism

Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize–winning exposé of the producer Harvey Weinstein was undeniably consequential. Their investigative reporting for The New York Times helped kick-start a cultural reckoning over sexual harassment and abuse across a wide range of industries. In 2019, the duo chronicled their work in the book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. They wrote about sifting through court settlements, nondisclosure agreements, and memos; agonizing over their wording in texts and emails to sources; and chasing, for three years, crumbs of information. The densely detailed narrative is riveting but inherently uncinematic.

Yet when it came to adapting the material for the big screen, the director Maria Schrader and the screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz considered the meticulousness of Kantor and Twohey’s process the point. Schrader knew the sheer amount of dialogue they’d have to include. “But I was never nervous about that,” the director told me. “The more you learn about all these steps … the more you [realize that they were uncovering] a nightmare.” After all, Lenkiewicz told me, their relentless reporting revealed the story’s sensitivity, which the best films depicting journalism should also do. “It wasn’t just about the journalism,” she said about Spotlight, one such movie she admires. “It was about voices that are not heard.”

She Said, as a result, isn’t a triumphant film about the rise of the #MeToo movement, but rather a clear-eyed, measured depiction of why that first article struck a nerve. Such a cool touch has made the movie a hard sell to audiences, as last weekend’s paltry box-office earnings reflected. Yet She Said is a valuable entry in the journalism-movie genre. Kantor and Twohey’s thoroughness offered a model not just of journalism, but of compassion. Schrader and Lenkiewicz approached their adaptation the same way, tracking the emotional reality of the reporters’ experiences. The film shows how Jodi (played by Zoe Kazan) and Megan (Carey Mulligan) went from collaborating as colleagues to depending on each other for support, and how hearing about trauma repeatedly took a toll on both of them. She Said is concerned less with reenacting Weinstein’s harassment and abuse than with showing the value of active listening. Take away all of the headlines that have emerged around #MeToo, the film urges, and the movement becomes a study of care. As Lenkiewicz put it, “Although there is such darkness in the story … there is a lot of beauty and light about women finding each other.”

[Read: In the valley of the open secret]

To make that message clear, the movie’s creators needed to get the journalism right. In one of the strongest scenes, Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton), a former Miramax employee, meets with Jodi for an off-the-record conversation about why she left the company. But before she tells her story, she explains the terms of the NDA she signed. A lesser film might have glossed over the finer points or tried to amp up the tension with a showier performance. She Said, though, lets the scene run for nearly 10 minutes. The NDA’s particulars are as important as Zelda’s memories of the workplace culture; they illustrate how harshly Weinstein’s cohorts acted in response to her allegations. Schrader said that she and Lenkiewicz prioritized accurately depicting the way sources discussed their experiences. They believed that these conversations warranted as much time on-screen as they did in the book—that if these journalists paid such close attention to the context, so can the rest of us.

She Said the book contains its share of shocking material. As an Oscar-winning mega-producer, Weinstein built an extensive network of powerful people, some of whom helped the Times’ investigation and some of whom hindered it. Kantor and Twohey describe acquiring a copy of a damning memo from a source who went to the restroom while they were meeting at a bar and deliberately left his phone for Kantor to access. The authors also recall getting panicked messages from Gwyneth Paltrow when Weinstein showed up at her Hamptons home, and being targeted by operatives from the Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube.

Any one of these moments could have been sensationalized, and the film does allow for a few theatrical flourishes: A black SUV appears to crawl after Jodi as she leaves a restaurant, and Megan tells off a man who won’t leave her and her female colleagues alone at a bar. But such scenes are brief; Lenkiewicz told me their intention was to underline the pressure that came with the investigation. “There’s been this wave of anti-journalism [sentiment] … You know, Can news be trusted? Is news valid?” Lenkiewicz said. “I think it’s very important for people to know that there are journalists out there who are unstoppable in their seeking of the truth.”

The film doesn’t just re-create the journalists’ day-to-day life; it also captures the book’s solemn and matter-of-fact tone. Lenkiewicz turned flurries of emails and texts into realistic, expanded conversations, illustrating how sources went from hesitating to trusting the reporters. Schrader, meanwhile, contrasted the cool, restrained shots that accompanied survivors’ voice-overs—such as that of an empty hotel hallway—with the clamor inside the Times offices. In the newsroom, the constant chatter between editors and writers is marked by an obvious, shared respect. The glimpses of Weinstein’s operation, however, are distressingly quiet—set in inappropriate spaces, captured in montages of hastily rearranged hotel rooms, half-eaten meals, and abandoned purses. The presentation of these different working environments is subtle, but intensely effective.

[Read: #MeToo has changed the world—except in court]

The most important move the film makes is also its riskiest: She Said delves into the journalists’ home lives, an element that doesn’t appear in the book. The movie depicts Megan coping with postpartum depression and Jodi’s shock when her elder daughter first asks her about the word rape. These sequences expand our view of the journalists beyond their occupation, grounding them as characters themselves. That way, Schrader said, when they’re seated across from survivors, asking them questions, audiences aren’t just watching an interview; they’re understanding how the duo connected with the women they met. Kantor and Twohey’s subjects had to stay off the record, which meant they couldn’t be quoted or have anything they shared attributed to them. But they spoke anyway, because they’d been waiting for the right person to listen. “It would be so much more narrow if we were just seeing two bigger-than-life heroines going after the villain,” Schrader explained. The reality is “much more complex.”

She Said doesn’t end with Weinstein’s arrest or with the collapse of his company; it ends with the publishing of the exposé. Instead of fast-forwarding to a neat epilogue, the film suggests that the #MeToo movement, at that point in 2017, faced an uncertain future. Five years after the events depicted, that remains the case. Yes, the reporting led to the producer’s conviction, as well as countless conversations about misogyny, abuse of power, and the systems that protect perpetrators of sexual harassment—but other abusers have evaded penalty. Efforts to enact industry-wide solutions, such as Time’s Up, have stalled, while questions linger over what accountability should look like, especially for Hollywood’s most influential figures. The film’s credits are a reminder of this fact: One of the executive producers, Brad Pitt, faces allegations of abuse from his ex-wife, Angelina Jolie. (Pitt’s lawyer released a statement denying the allegations.) Schrader demurred from commenting on Pitt’s involvement, noting that she’s never met him. But she explained that she intended for the film to “not shy away from the complexity and complicity and the question How much are you already involved?

In other words, She Said is not self-congratulatory; it’s a reminder that empathy can require immense effort, and that even then, such effort might not lead to certain success. In one of the film’s most compelling scenes, Megan accepts a meeting with Weinstein and his coterie of lawyers; she needs to give him an opportunity to respond in order to publish the piece. Team Weinstein is obviously riled up. As the camera zooms in on Megan’s face, the audio fades. Mulligan turns in a subtle performance as she sits opposite this human wall of deflection and denial. She looks determined, then bemused, and then wary. A flicker of resignation crosses her face, as she seems to realize that they care more about the well-being of the Weinstein Company than the well-being of the women who work there. There will always be people on the other side of the table, the film posits. But those worth hearing are the ones who don’t have the power to claim a seat at all.

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