For far too long, allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct were dismissed as cases of “he said, she said,” a woman’s word against a man’s. “She Said,” Maria Schrader’s powerful new film that opens in Boston this weekend, stands decisively on the side of women — both the ones wielding pens and notepads and the ones sharing their stories.
Based on New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book of the same name, the movie follows the women (played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan, respectively) as they investigate decades of accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Their reporting culminates in a 2017 story which, we now know, would go on to mark a watershed moment in the #MeToo movement.
The film fits within a tradition of American newsroom dramas such as “All the President’s Men” and “The Post.” But while “She Said” shares DNA with these predecessors, it departs from the journalism movie mold in critical ways.
Hollywood has a tendency to glamorize the newspaper world. Take this quotable moment from “All the President’s Men”: “Nothing’s riding on this except the first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
Most writers and editors chug along on more workaday routines. No wonder newspaperwomen and men love journalism movies; they make the press, and its members, look witty, sexy, and impressive.
“She Said” pushes against that trend. While the film contains a number of exciting scenes inside The New York Times offices, it declines to lionize the paper and its workers. Or rather, it declines to lionize them above all else. If the film is a tribute to anyone, it is to the group of brave women who recount their experiences to Kantor and Twohey, and who ultimately agree to having their stories shared with the public.
One of those women is Ashley Judd, the first actress to go on the record for the New York Times story with her accusations against Weinstein. Judd plays herself in the movie, and though she appears on only a handful of occasions, her presence is memorable: In one pivotal scene, Judd stands regally on a cliffside beholding a broad vista as she calls Kantor to relay a significant update. Kantor, upon hearing the news, breaks down in sobs.
Following the New York Film Festival premiere of “She Said,” Judd took the stage alongside the filmmakers, journalists, and cast members. “So much has improved,” she said during the discussion. “Auditions don’t happen in hotel rooms anymore. They don’t happen before 8 o’clock in the morning, or after 6 o’clock at night.”
There were other, less famous women who also went on the record in Kantor and Twohey’s article. Laura Madden, an Irish woman who worked for Miramax in the 1990s, is a key character in “She Said.” The movie opens with a brief prelude depicting Madden (played by Lola Petticrew, and later as an adult by Jennifer Ehle) stumbling on a film set and joining the ranks of the production assistants. The scene then abruptly cuts to Madden sprinting down the street while sobbing. Only later, as Madden tells her story to Kantor, do we learn about the trauma that preceded that moment. Ehle, a warm and inviting performer, imbues the part with quiet power.
By elevating Judd and Martin — as well as former Miramax assistants Zelda Perkins (played by Samantha Morton and in flashbacks by Molly Windsor) and Rowena Chiu (played by Angela Yeoh and in flashbacks by Ashley Chiu) — to primary narrative positions, “She Said” brings the crux of its story into focus. Unlike “All the President’s Men,” or even “Spotlight,” this movie is not only a reporting procedural, but a portrait of collective trauma. It’s an inquiry into what it entails to be a woman in the workplace, and in particular the jolt of distress when supposed support systems give out.
The movie’s thoughtful portrayal of working women extends to another domain: the challenge of harmonizing professional and domestic duties. Both Kantor and Twohey are frequently portrayed in their households as job stresses seep in. Soon into the movie, Twohey is shown dealing with postpartum depression after the birth of her first child. In other scenes, she juggles work calls while on walks with the infant.
Kantor is repeatedly depicted handling child care responsibilities as well. “Mommy has to go to work,” she pleads to her youngest in an early scene as the toddler clings to her neck. Later, when she unexpectedly receives a call from Rose McGowan, Kantor grabs a notepad and jots something down. Only once she passes the sheet to her elder daughter do we see that it contains the family Netflix password.
Kazan praised the movie’s inclusion of these types of moments in a Twitter thread in October. “One of the many things that made me want to be a part of telling this story is that it depicts two working mothers making the (usually invisible) effort of balancing their home life with their work,” she wrote, before thanking her parents, and her nanny, for watching her own daughter while she shot the film.
Kazan’s remarks represent a continuation of what “She Said” is doing more generally: taking the spotlight that would be on the reporters and dilating it to illuminate all of the women who made the Weinstein reporting possible. Kantor and Twohey might be comparable to a modern Woodward and Bernstein, but this movie understands that it takes more than two intrepid journalists to fortify a movement.