Director: Maria Schrader (USA). Year of Release: 2022
The Irish coast, 1992. A young woman with short hair is walking along the beach. On the horizon we see an ancient galleon docking and being unloaded by men in red uniforms. On the beach, a camera man is filming them. The young woman approaches him. In the next shot, we see the same woman running down a present-day street, her face full of shock and anxiety.
We’ll find out what all that was about later. For the time being, we’re jumping forward to 2016. The staff of the New York Times are working on the imminent election of Donald Trump. One journalist. Megan, is interviewing women who have been harassed by Trump. Most of them are too scared of going on the record, fearful of repercussions. These are not idle worries. When someone does agree to a published interview, she is sent an envelope filled with shit.
The liberal Times journalists see Trump’s election as an opportunity to follow up on other cases of sexual abuse. One has heard of repeated rumours about misdeeds at Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax films. These have never reached court, as either the accusers withdrew their allegations, or they signed Non-Disclosure Agreements. But this has happened so many times that there must be a story. Megan is joined on the case with young journalist Jodi.
As a film, She Said faces a couple of inevitable problems. Firstly, there are few people with access to a film screen who do not know that Weinstein is now doing time for several cases of rape and other sexual abuse. This means that there is little jeopardy n in the film – we all know what is going to happen. It is better treated as a documentary which shows what exactly happened and how it was allowed to happen than as a suspense thriller.
Secondly, many of the films’ characters are well known. In the case of Ashley Judd, this is dealt with by having the singer and actor play herself. But Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan, and Weinstein himself, appear in the film either as disembodied voices on the telephone or shot entirely from behind. I think this does work better than employing stunt doubles but the fact that they know that you know what they’re doing can make it all a little distracting.
There is a third problem which has bedevilled films like this since All the President’s Men. Investigative journalism may sound exciting, but the day-to-day work is pretty dull routine. So, there’s lots of shots of Megan and Jodi talking on their mobile phones, sitting in hotel rooms, or talking to potential interviewees over a meal and a glass of red wine. There have been too many recent films which have gone over 2 hours. This is also too long and starts to get repetitive.
Nonetheless, for all that we know where we are going to end up, individual scenes do contain more dramatic tension than you’d think. Who will talk to the journalists? The women who could testify genuinely fear that their careers will suffer if they go on record. They do not want to talk about the mental, and often physical, intimidation that they have suffered. And while each of them sincerely hopes that someone will speak out, none of them is quite ready to be the first.
The film is untypical inasmuch as the 2 heroes are women with young kids. This occasionally leads to forgettable scenes – we didn’t need the cloying skype talk with a moppet at home. But generally, it makes you empathize with their struggle to keep their family together and produce groundbreaking journalism. Yes, each has a helpful partner. But the men are at best slightly pathetic babysitters who are in their partner’s shadows as they don’t seem to be as important.
She Said is much better than I was expecting it to be, which probably says more about my relatively low expectations than the film’s quality. It is competent, what used to be called workmanlike, though given the size of of female contribution to the writing and directing, workwomanlike is probably a more appropriate term. But it is more than competent. Above all, the importance of the case, and the extent of the abuse uncovered makes the film well worth seeing.
The film is not perfect, and doesn’t take many risks. Nonetheless, this is a story which must be heard. My biggest complaint would be that it doesn’t go far enough. One more than one occasion, characters say that this is about more than just one person, it is about systemic abuse. And yet, in the film’s handling of both Weinstein’s abuses and (in the prelude) those of Donald Trump, the default position is to concentrate on the person than the individual.
Weinstein was allowed to get away with it because of a system that is tilted in favour of rich men. He was protected, not just by his lawyers, but by Democrat politicians who valued his financial support. His enablers were disgusted by Trump’s boorishness, but attracted by Weinstein’s campaign contributions and the possibility of a photo opportunity with one of Hollywood’s movers and shakers. Above all, they belonged to a class which looks after its own.
It is not so much that She Said ignores these issues, more that a discussion about the imbalance of power within society was always beyond the film’s purview. And it is usually wrong to attack a film for not doing what it never set out to do. Never mind. Maybe other films will be made which are prepared to look more critically at the nexus between political power and a disregard of women. Until then, the world is a slightly better place for having this one.