I am an absolute sucker for film dramas about journalism.
It is one of the closest things popular cinema has to a can’t-lose proposition for me. Present me with a mystery to be solved, and a critical moral failure to be exposed, and a doggedly persistent smart protagonist to investigate the matter, and dollars to doughnuts I will be a satisfied viewer. Investigative journalism directly drives story, and without the legal structure of lawyers or the weaponry and authority of police officers to support them journalists can face tougher odds and express more nuanced character that pretty much all other professions. Whether adapted from real-life stories like All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015), or wholly fictional like The Paper (1994) and State of Play (2009), journalism drama is a consistent winner for my affections. It is a particular format that I find impossible to resist.
The latest Hollywood example is Maria Schrader’s biographical drama She Said, which takes as its subject matter the story broken by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey about film producer Harvey Weinstein and his long history of harassing, abusing, and sexually assaulting women. It is aggressively contemporary, adapting events that only occurred five years ago. It is also strikingly challenging material, focusing as it does on issues of sexual assault and (more broadly) male violence against women. That the film’s wide theatrical release in the USA was met with critically poor box office is not a surprise. It is a challenge for any feature to succeed commercially in a post-streaming environment. For a film dealing with serious social issues that have a personal effect on literally half of the audience, it is a near-impossibility. She Said deserves your business and your support. We will miss this kind of quality adult cinema when it is gone.
If there is one significant criticism to be made, it is that Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay is rather messy in its first act. Characters are introduced abruptly and rapidly, which leaves the first half hour or so on relatively shaky footing. Once events settle down, and the narrative given a stronger direction, She Said becomes a riveting drama centred on character and bristling with moral outrage. It seems a particular winner regarding its tone: the key players are all given deeply human nuances. They get upset. They receive – and sometimes take for granted – the emotional support of their partners, colleagues, and families. People hug each other. People cry and become overwhelmed. Sexual assault is tough subject matter, and both Lenkiewicz and Schrader never take their audience for granted. Nothing feels sexualised. Nothing feels as if portrayed via a male gaze. It is not even the most aggravated offences that are most effective in She Said. Instead it depicts a world of micro-aggressions, all aimed at women and just relentlessly insidious in their nature. I suspect many women viewing the film will find it all too close for comfort; for this male viewer it was important to see and vital to sit through. The misogyny depicted cannot be experienced by men’s life experience. It must be presented like this for us to properly understand.
The film is understandable short on tension, because most of the audience will know from the news how the story of Kantor and Twohey’s investigation ends. To generate its palpable tension the film must rely on a range of outstanding performances. Much of the attention will fall on the leads Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan – and appropriately so – but there is a range of stunning supporting players who are worthy of recognition. Andre Braugher, who has spent much of the past decade performing comedy in TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, makes a tremendous return to drama as New York Times editor Dean Baquet. Patricia Clarkson is typically strong as Kantor and Twohey’s section editor Rebecca Corbett. Key witnesses to Weinstein’s behaviours are played by top-notch talent including Jennifer Elhe and Samantha Morton – and most strikingly by Ashley Judd, who plays herself in a small part that must have been excruciating to revisit. Most laudable of all is the constantly underrated Zach Grenier as former Miramax accountant Irwin Reiter. It is a role critical to the film’s story, and he plays it with subtlety and ambiguity.
This is, regardless of its commercial performance, one of 2022’s finest American dramas. To reiterate: She Said deserves your patronage. It is smart, well-directed, and impeccably performed. Do not wait to see it on your television or smartphone. It is worthy of much, much more.