Originally published on Elements of Madness.
While the real-life work of an investigative journalist might feel like running head-first into a brick wall over and over again, movies and shows usually make it seem like an idealistic, noble, and exciting job that combines the thrill of detective work with the glamorous life of a writer. The 2022 movie She Said, directed by Maria Schrader (I’m Your Man) and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Small Axe), highlights the work of two real-life investigative journalists, Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). The movie portrays Kantor and Twohey as confident, career-driven women who balance their roles as journalists and mothers just as skillfully as they balance their morning cups of coffee as they make their ways through the bustling stress of the city into the prestigious New York Times building. But She Said isn’t all #girlbossing and go-getting. It’s bleak, slow, and depressing, trapped under a melancholy gray cloud that sets an appropriate tone for the story. In 2017, Kantor and Twohey published a story in the New York Times that exposed decades of abuse and misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. While the story gave hundreds of women the courage to share their own stories about abuse and survival, it was initially very difficult for Kantor and Twohey to find women who were willing to risk their careers and reputations by going on the record about Weinstein’s misconduct (some of these women also risked legal action since Weinstein silenced several of the women he abused with settlements). She Said recounts Kantor and Twohey’s investigative process and the painstaking steps they took to shed light on systemic abuse in Hollywood.
She Said is a good one-time watch, and it could be an educational resource for future generations that won’t have first-hand memories of the #MeToo movement. But as far as investigative journalism movies go, She Said is forgettable. Schrader and the creative team were trying to achieve two conflicting goals with She Said and the tension between these two goals disrupts the structure of the film so much that it falls embarrassingly flat. The first goal is to honor the truth of the story and amplify the voices of the real-life women it represents. The second is to make a memorable and entertaining movie with a good story. As to the first goal, She Said makes significant strides in the ongoing efforts by filmmakers to represent traumatic stories on screen in a respectful way. Directors and writers who want to continue exploring the problem of sexual harassment can certainly learn a thing or two from Schrader’s work. But as for the second goal, She Said misses the mark. By a lot. While there are a few engaging and memorable scenes that give voice to the survivors of harassment and abuse, much of She Said is made up of overly dramatic filler scenes and montages that swallow up the best parts of the movie.
So, what are those best parts? In its attempt to tell an honest story that gives voice to survivors of abuse, She Said gets a few key things right. First, it never shows the abuser’s face. The actor portraying him is only shown briefly from behind. While his voice is heard on several occasions, the purpose of those scenes is not to give him a voice, but to expose his abuse of power, his lies, and his childlike personality. She Said keeps the abuser out of the picture (literally) and refuses to give him any more attention than he’s already received, shifting the attention to the brave women who exposed him. Second, She Said contains no visual depictions of abuse. There are plenty of flashbacks, but these scenes highlight the emotional and mental experience of surviving trauma rather than the trauma itself. The opening scene, for example, focuses on a young woman who we later learn is Laura Madden, an ambitious, hard-working, and creative professional who worked for Miramax in the 1990s. Portrayed with care and grace by Lola Petticrew, the young Laura is perfectly happy, at first. She seems fascinated by the goings on of a movie set and is eager to learn about the industry. But then, suddenly, she’s running down the street alone, visibly traumatized. The camera captures the infuriating destruction of young Laura’s ambition and optimism without exploiting her trauma. By focusing on Laura’s expressions and emotions, She Said tells us exactly what she has been through without having to show it to us. She Said treats the rest of the flashbacks in a similar manner. Later on in the film, we see young Rowena Chiu (Ashley Chiu) and Zelka Perkins (Molly Windsor) transform from young and hopeful professionals into empty and frightened individuals who have been stripped of their dignity. Throughout these flashbacks, She Said grants these women enough respect to conceal the moments in which that dignity and hope was taken from them.
While She Said does not show abuse or harassment, it does contain verbal descriptions of abuse. Much like the flashbacks, however, these descriptions are meant to give voice to the survivors rather than to exploit them. The three scenes in which She Said most successfully honors the women who underwent sexual abuse are Kantor’s interviews with the adult Laura Madden, Rowena Chiu, and Zelda Perkins (Jennifer Ehle, Angela Yeoh, and Samantha Morton, respectively). These powerful, monologue-driven scenes are free of cinematic frills and Hollywood drama. The lighting isn’t great, the costumes are bleak, and the music is minimal, but the performances are gut-wrenching. Stripped down to very unglamorous versions of themselves, all three actresses take an honest approach to their roles. They’re visibly uncomfortable and shift in their seats. They look down when they recount particularly difficult details. Their voices lower when they say certain words. These aren’t the kind of performances meant to give audiences an adrenaline rush. They’re the kind of performances meant to make audiences extremely uncomfortable. These aren’t tear-jerking performances meant to give us cathartic release. These are honest performances meant to make us share in just the tiniest fraction of the humiliation, shame, and self-loathing felt by victims of sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, those three powerful scenes make up only a small portion of She Said. There are other parts of the film, two in particular, that do not honor the women who were involved in the real incidents. The first is when Kantor calls Rose McGowan (voiced by Keilly McQuail), an actress who attempted to call attention to the systemic abuse in Hollywood long before Kantor and Twohey did. McGowan tells Kantor that she’s tried to work with various media outlets before, including the New York Times, but these outlets dismissed her claims and refused to help. Kantor, being the well-trained and savvy investigative journalist that she is, apologizes but brushes past the complaint. In this scene, She Said has the perfect opportunity to address the media’s failure to take sexual abuse allegations seriously. But much like Kantor’s carefully worded response, She Said glosses over this issue and gets back to glorifying Kantor’s and Twohey’s work as quickly as possible. Something similar happens when Twohey asks Dean Baquet (Andre Braugher), the executive editor at the Times, if she and Kantor can have a little bit longer to work on the article even though they are racing against another publication to break the story. Much like Kantor’s conversation with McGowen, this statement feels, for lack of a better word, icky. It draws attention to the fact that the Times is, ultimately, a business that’s more interested in making money and outsmarting its competitors than telling the truth. But rather than exploring this issue, She Said lets it slide. The film puts all its energy into portraying Kantor and Twohey as fearless and vigilant women who want nothing more than to give voice to the voiceless, but it sweeps the media’s past failures under the rug.
Now, the second goal: telling a good, memorable story. When it comes to stories based on true events (particularly heavy events) the last thing you want to do is exploit or over-embellish the story. This makes it difficult to make an engaging and entertaining movie. In between the most important scenes in She Said, the movie is stuffed with over-dramatic filler sequences that come across as cringy attempts to make the story more exciting. The opening scenes introduce Kantor’s and Twohey’s families and establish their roles as wives, mothers, and journalists, suggesting that these roles will be explored throughout the film. But rather than developing these themes and exploring those roles, She Said uses them as dramatic fillers and placeholders. Kantor and Twohey barely talk about their families, and they don’t experience any familial conflict. There are plenty of shots showing Kantor and Twohey interacting with their children and husbands, but these are used to set the mood and transition from one important scene to the next rather than to develop conflict. The opening of the film briefly touches on Twohey’s struggle with postpartum depression, but this conflict is quickly swept under the rug. On that note, while Mulligan and Kazan both give praiseworthy performances, Twohey and Kantor come across as perfect goddesses of journalism who always know exactly what to say (especially Twohey) and experience little to no real conflict. The film versions of Twohey and Kantor are likable and engaging, but they feel like shadows of the real women they represent. They seem to have no flaws, and their problems disappear quickly. She Said starts to explore motherhood and the challenges that women face in journalism and the professional world in general, but these themes are dropped at the door and traded for glossy, near-perfect, Hollywoodized versions of women journalists.
If there’s one thing that audiences and fans of She Said will want to know more about, it’s the true story behind the movie. You can get to know a little bit about the real Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor by watching the DVD and Blu-ray featurette, “Breaking the Story.” Featuring interview clips with both journalists, this behind-the-scenes look gives audiences just a taste of how the real story was brought to the screen. Unfortunately, this is the only special feature on the home release. Since viewers will probably have lots of questions about the details of the story, it would have been nice to see a longer behind-the-scenes special feature explaining Lenkiewicz’s writing process. A commentary with Twohey and Kantor would have also been fascinating. If you want to take a deep-dive into the real story behind She Said, you’re going to have to do the research on your own.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."