Harvey Weinstein is a piece of shit, truly garbage made flesh. Even before the truth came out about his predatory sexual behavior and outright rape, he basically represented the worst Hollywood had to offer. He was mean, aggressive, greedy, and his unabashed bribery and woefully unethical campaigning is the reason Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture for 2008 while the likes of WALL-e, The Wrestler, and The Dark Knight weren’t even nominated, necessitating the expansion of the field. Even after his career was rightly ended due to his disgusting criminality, he continues to hold great films hostage from creators hoping to distribute them on modern platforms, most notably Kevin Smith’s Dogma, because he deludes himself that he can and should still have some leverage in the industry. Suffice to say, you don’t need to give me a reason to hate this sonofabitch.
But just in case you weren’t convinced, we now have She Said, directed by Maria Schrader and written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz. The film details the painstaking process by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in tracking down sources willing to detail the assault, harassment, and methodologies of Weinstein, as well as the legal system that he exploited to keep himself out of trouble for decades. It’s a daring, important, and at times a genuinely fascinating look at the actual footwork that goes into investigative journalism at the highest levels.
There’s just one major problem. The movie is literally Spotlight.
There are variations here and there, but in essence, every major plot beat is lifted straight from 2015’s Best Picture winner. The genesis of the story comes from higher-ups at the newspaper encouraging staff to seek it out as a priority. The reporters themselves face initial roadblocks from witnesses and official sources, showing how difficult it is to get victims to come forward knowing there’s a framework in place to keep them silent. There are subtle and overt intimidation tactics employed by the guilty parties. Even the triumphant montage of writing the exposé and publishing it is basically the same.
That’s not to say that this isn’t a good movie. In fact, if a film is going to be so derivative, I’d much prefer it to be a ripoff done in the service of an essential topic rather than the litany of other IPs that could be copied. And for what it’s worth, She Said has some really strong moments that advance the importance of the message. So it’s definitely worth your time if you’re so inclined.
The biggest plus in the film’s favor is how well it establishes the stakes of the investigation. Beginning the story in the fall of 2016, Twohey (played by Carey Mulligan, who’s already had a memorable turn on this subject with Promising Young Woman) leads the charge on a story where two women publicly accuse Donald Trump of misconduct in the runup to his election. In a few short scenes we see just how rigged the system is. Rachel Crooks (Emma O’Connor) is hesitant to put her name in the paper, and Twohey does warn her that this is not witness protection, so the choice to come forward is entirely hers, and the Times can’t offer any aid if she does. The story comes out, press hounds Crooks’ house, she’s literally mailed feces, Trump (voiced by noted impersonator James Austin Johnson) calls Twohey to rage and insult her, and then an anonymous Trump supporter calls her to threaten rape and murder. While not explicitly stated, literally the only recourse Crooks or Twohey has in this instance is to hope police can trace back the post and the call and arrest those individuals. Even then, good luck.
That’s a really strong choice, given the monumental task Schrader et al have to differentiate themselves from their spiritual predecessor, and it pays off. As brilliant as Spotlight was, it had essentially 15 years to cultivate the entirety of its story and see the consequences of the Boston Globe report on pedophile priests play out. The women in this film don’t have that luxury, as a sexual predator literally became President and declared open season on journalism that in any way questioned his actions, much less criticized them. That adds a sense of real, timely danger to the proceedings.
The second bit of separation comes in the diversity of the accounts of Weinstein’s attacks. The film itself opens with a young and happy Laura Madden (Lola Petticrew; Jennifer Ehle plays her in the present) wandering onto a movie set in Ireland back in 1992, joining the crew after having a good time and being invited over, before smash cutting to the same woman running terrified through cobblestone streets barely dressed and carrying the rest of her clothes as she sobs. The motif continues with flashbacks to young assistants screaming and vomiting in hotel hallways, secret audio recordings of Weinstein plying his sickening trade, and testimonials from people who were in the know when it came to his behavior relaying how they were meant to handle and prepare others for the inevitability of his pursuit. This is compounded by the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements that many victims had to sign to get any form of compensation, the exploitative nature of which is explored at decent length, as it gives perpetrators like Weinstein and Trump amazing legal cover, even if they are ostensibly unenforceable if being used to obscure a crime.
This leads into the ongoing consequences of these assaults. In Spotlight a good amount of time was spent on how victims dealt with the trauma of their abuse, because it happened when they were children. For better and worse, they’ve had years to grow up and process what happened to them. Again, no such luck for these women, as they were forced to either put up with Weinstein’s crimes or leave the film industry, no matter how hard they worked to achieve their goals. And if there’s any hint that they might come forward, they’re constantly intimidated by Weinstein and his agents, some even noting with repugnant affection that “Harvey still thinks very highly” of them. It’s two sides of the same manipulative coin. For those abused by Catholic priests, their claims were dismissed as the playful lies of children while their lives were destroyed by men they believed were agents of God. For the women of Miramax (and other entities), their claims are dismissed as them being mentally unstable whores who try to “sleep their way to the top” while the head of that corporate ladder literally destroys their lives – and livelihoods – in real time.
Furthering this theme is the one truly innovative piece of the film, and that’s the inclusion of Ashley Judd. One of the many famous victims of Weinstein’s wandering eye, Judd appearing as herself in the picture, reliving both her trauma and her response to it, adds a visceral and engaging dimension of nuance that other devices used here can’t quite accomplish. You hear the gory details of what happened to her, you get a sense for why her career (both in movies and politics) seemed to flag right at the height of her popularity, you understand the inner conflict she had to have experienced in deciding whether or not to come forward, and you feel the catharsis with her when she finally does. There are a couple other famous names used in the story – Gwyneth Paltrow in voiceover and Keilly McQuail doing a vocal impersonation of Rose McGowan – but having Judd visually on the screen to convey her story unfiltered has a much stronger effect.
As for the nuts and bolts of the film, it’s perfectly fine. Mulligan and Zoe Kazan give decent performances as our intrepid reporters, while Andre Braugher and Patricia Clarkson give excellent turns as their superiors at the Times. Braugher is especially strong thanks to several scenes where he makes it clear that he will brook no bullshit from Weinstein (Mike Houston) or his legal team in trying to kill the story. The yeoman’s work that goes into bringing something so dark into the light, just like it was done in Spotlight, is very much part of the film’s charm because it gives everything the journalists do a sense of credibility, even more poignant given the early framing device of tying these events to Bill O’Reilly and Donald “Fake News” Trump.
These are stories that need to be told and scumbags that need to go down hard, so I’m 100% behind any artistic effort to do so. But it has to be said that we’ve been down this road before, and very little in the film expands upon Spotlight‘s example (or even All the President’s Men long before that). There are flashes of brilliance, as mentioned above, but they’re mostly brief, and they still exist within the established framework without taking things in any truly new directions.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film may end up shooting itself in the foot from a legal standpoint. Harvey Weinstein is on trial right now in Los Angeles, having already been convicted in New York, and he has a pending prosecution in London. His lawyers argued that the movie would prejudice potential jurors and asked for a delay in his L.A. trial. Thankfully, the judge refused the motion, but that doesn’t mean another judge won’t grant that relief on appeal. And honestly, if Weinstein hadn’t already been found guilty in New York and sentenced to 23 years in prison, the timing of this release could easily be used as an argument for a mistrial on those very grounds. This is a great film, but given how much attention is paid to the institutions and legal loopholes that protect monsters like Weinstein, the last thing you want to do is provide an opening for said advantages to be exploited in his favor yet again.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How much faith do you put in the fourth estate? Just how much is the newspaper of record “failing” in your opinion? Let me know!