Director: Maria Schrader
Stars: Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Ashley Judd
In cinematic terms, the investigative journalism picture is beholden to a set of rather tight strictures, most of which are demanded by their weighty subject matter. In an effort to maintain the semblance of unimpeachable veracity, fluff goes out the window. What do I mean by ‘fluff’? Honestly? Anything extraneous whatsoever. Be that excess information or, more commonly, authorial artistic flare. Rule of thumb is that there’s no room for it and, what’s more, such pictures are yearning to be taken as seriously as a rigorous documentary. Muddying the waters with anything personal can crack the veneer.
These are broad-stroke truisms, but they mostly stand. There are great films about investigative journalism. All the President’s Men remains perhaps the benchmark, while the Oscar-winning Spotlight certainly has it’s fans. Few among their number however feel the stamp of an auteur (David Fincher’s Zodiac stands out as an exception to this rule).
Maria Schrader’s She Said follows the pre-set standards, then. And many reviewers have seemed quick to note this, especially when coming down as middling or (in scant cases) against the picture, even dismissing it as little more than a series of filmed telephone calls. But Schrader’s work is a) faithful to both it’s subject and the modes of presenting such material and b) not as mechanical as may have been reported.
The subject here, of course, is the ousting of Harvey Weinstein by The New York Times in the middle of 2016. We hear phrases like “culture shift” with disenfranchising regularity, but this story genuinely brought about a wave of societal change, reexamination and – in too few cases – overdue consequences for heinous acts of sexual misconduct. It was seismic. One of the most important news stories to occur in my lifetime. And – given that it is, in a real sense, a Hollywood story – a dramatisation was inevitable.
She Said is about as credible a work as we might’ve dared hope for. Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan are co-leads as reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor who, working together, inched the magnitude of Weinstein’s misdeeds out of the margins. Schrader’s film is a process story. It’s how that came about, how it was done. It is the means and resources and emotional struggles of around-the-clock work, and it ends the moment the story goes to press.
Mulligan and Kazan invest in these women. Credible, professional, committed to their work. We’re provided light context that frames the two of them, separately, as young mothers balancing these familial responsibilities (and struggles) with an all-consuming occupation. That they are the mothers of daughters feathers in a protective element to their cause, which begins as just the next job, but which slowly snowballs into something so much larger than either of them expected.
While this is foremost a tale of journalism, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s intelligent script never trivialises the voice of the victims. Consent is at the core of Weinstein’s crimes, and the consent to go on record is a deep concern throughout for all parties. She Said weights the importance of having a voice and a choice; be that an empowered decision to speak, the legal suffocation of an NDA, or the legitimate trauma of being asked to recollect and potentially relive a horrifying experience.
The film gains credence – just as Twohey and Kantor’s did – via the participation of Ashley Judd, who graciously appears here as herself; one of the key early players in the unfolding scandal. But credence is not lacking otherwise. She Said feels as though it takes detail and integrity very seriously. Unsurprisingly, it’s a little mirthless, but it is inherently riveting without resorting once to a sense of tabloid sensationalism. Thanks to rigorous work from all departments – especially editing – these 2+ hours clip by; something that wouldn’t be true at all of a film that is ‘just’ filmed telephone calls. Our engagement is teased out of us by performance, by pacing, by the elements that Schrader’s crew corral to invisibly earn our investment.
And there’s also, sparingly, the warmth of an authorial voice. Not overwhelmingly so, granted, but it’s there in the film’s occasional negative spaces. A shot that kindles to mind Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, for example, albeit viewed from the other side of that nighttime pane of glass. The inessential moments spent with weary partners. The light addition, in short, of the world surrounding Twohey and Kantor.
Only a couple of notes read as false or overbearing here. One – surprisingly, and only on occasion – is Nicholas Britell, an often impeccable composer whose score here takes our hand just a little too firmly once or twice. The other is the understandable but unfortunately quite cheesy urge to build suspense in the film’s final scene as the story goes live on the NYT website. It’s not an awful moment, but it reads as mildly comical precisely because She Said stays clear of such tendencies for so long. Wisely, She Said mostly resists the urge to turn this all into a paranoiac thriller.
Mulligan is as great as she usually is, but it is Kazan who really shines here. Which is not to say that she doesn’t ordinarily, but this is some un-showy work that fully engages, as much or more when she’s listening to others as when its her turn to speak.
And this is a story about getting your turn. Finally. A watershed moment whose ripples are ongoing and worldwide. Prestige cinema (Weinstein’s stock and trade) can often seem risible, compromised, mired in awards hunger and associated preciousness. I didn’t get that read from She Said. This feels like a prideful piece of work, as it should. It’s just a shame that Brad Pitt’s Plan B logo is stamped at the top of it, considering his own precarious position in the media spotlight currently. Irrespective of this, She Said has the potential to become one of the most widely-digested ‘final words’ on a moment in modern history.