She Said: Read the damn book

November 10, 2022
Courtesy of JoJo Whilden/Universal Pictures

Readers of She Said—the 2019 New York Times best seller from New York Times Pulitzer winners Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, about the Harvey Weinstein scandal—will no doubt be wondering how the movie version streamlined the narrative. What cuts, which concessions to the truth, would have to be made in the name of silver-screen adaptability? Not many, as it turns out. Beyond excising a long coda detailing sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, Maria Schrader’s film, from a script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, takes great pains to touch on every major player and event from Kantor and Twohey’s book. The result is a mile wide and an inch deep: a movie so crowded with incident that the journalists at its center become little more than heroic ciphers; the—many, very real—impediments to their reporting are dispensed with as small hurdles.

Take Black Cube, for instance. Readers will remember that it’s a shady Israeli intelligence firm peopled with ex-Mossad types. Weinstein engaged Black Cube to surveil and discredit accusers and journalists. Kantor was among the targets, as was Ronan Farrow, who was also investigating Weinstein, for The New Yorker. If you thought all that would make for rich suspense-film fodder, you weren’t alone: the editors of the trailer for She Said played this element up, promising dark intrigue, black SUVs in the night, furtive glances over the shoulder. Yet the movie confines the Black Cube plotline to three quick scenes. There’s an early warning that Weinstein has eyes everywhere; that tinted-window truck, which creeps up on and then speeds past Zoe Kazan’s Kantor, is never to be seen or discussed again; we get just an offhand mention of an email from “Diana Filip”—actually an Israeli spy hired by Black Cube to pose as a women’s-rights advocate and befriend many of the principals, including the Times reporters and Rose McGowan.

She Said is a film of contingency: what you get out of it will depend on precisely how much you know going in. Those coming to the story cold will be as befuddled by the “Diana Filip” aside as by the dizzying rush of potentially rich but breezily blown-by subjects: motherhood and postpartum depression, workaholism and its consequences, the pressure on Asian-American women to uphold a “model minority” image, the inner workings of the newspaper industry, the inner workings of the film industry, the pernicious use and questionable legality of nondisclosure agreements, and on and on. I found myself wishing for on-screen hyperlinks that would lead to explainers, or for a miniseries that could offer the time and space to show us how each of these things complicated the journalists’ mission.

Neither does this treatment do any favors to the other real-life heroes of the story. Andre Braugher’s Dean Baquet, who was until recently the executive editor of the Times, gets a couple of scenes. But his tough talk to Weinstein and his army of attorneys is largely for the sake of comic relief, and seems rather short shrift, given Baquet’s stalwart presence in the book. Likewise, Patricia Clarkson’s Rebecca Corbett—a tireless editor, as figured in Kantor and Twohey’s telling, commuting weekly from Baltimore, working out of a hotel, and surviving on a diet of black tea and chocolate-covered almonds—is rendered as little more than a cheerleader (and with it never being explained why her home base looks an awful lot like a Marriott). A game Ashley Judd—the only Weinstein accuser who turns up to play herself—gets the film’s best line: referring to the backlash she endured following “Nasty Woman,” the Trump-quoting poem she recited at the Women’s March on Washington, she tells the Times, “He used those words and got elected. I used his words and got fired.” But the film’s insistence on completism also has her deliver one of the best lines from the book, which goes over in print but not on celluloid: cornered by Weinstein at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, she recalls, Judd told him she’d give him a blow job if she ever won Best Actress at the Oscars. What the movie misses—what you need the room afforded by writerly explication to apprehend—is that this wasn’t a moment of acquiescence to Weinstein; rather, it was a quick-thinking turn of the tables. The book makes clear that Judd’s stratagem enabled her to flee.

Meantime, those things the adaptation elides make for a less than satisfying experience. Beyond the lip service paid to the spy angle, the screen version of She Said omits many memorable (and, one would think, readily cinematic) details: Harvey punching Bob, his own brother and Miramax co-chairman, in the face; the injectable erectile-dysfunction medication Weinstein commands his assistants to pass off to him in nondescript paper bags; the painting McGowan is given of Weinstein with a severed head. Minor gripes, maybe. More troubling are the many major players who, unlike Judd, declined to be involved, and whom the film thus must tiptoe around: We get a voice actor standing in for McGowan; ditto Gwyneth Paltrow, even though Kantor and Twohey are shown visiting her place in LA. When Trump rings Twohey (Carey Mulligan), in the early going, to call her “disgusting,” the voice work is a sub–Saturday Night Live parody, making for some unintentional comedy in what’s meant to be a distressing scene. 

As for Weinstein himself, the film settles for yet more mediocre voice acting, plus clips of the real man recorded by Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, an Italian model, as part of an NYPD sting operation; a strong sequence on its own, the foray into documentary filmmaking makes for a jarring tonal discrepancy. Finally, what seems telegraphed as a dramatic climax—Weinstein’s visit to the Times office to respond in person to the charges laid out in the reporting—winds up taking place off-screen. Instead what we get is that tiredest of trappings in movies about acts of crusading journalism: reporters and editors huddled around a monitor, reading over one another’s shoulders, furiously adding finishing touches. The most uncomfortable, and perhaps edifying, moments of the journalism process are skipped over for the final glamour shots.

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That might be a complaint only journalists can relate to. And going this route—avoiding showing Weinstein in the flesh—might make a statement, effectively wresting the narrative from the abuser and restoring it to those who survived his predations. But it also runs the risk of making the opposite point. Those who read Twohey and Kantor’s book will recall how, initially, their editors wondered whether Weinstein was a big enough name for the kind of exposé the reporters were after. A few years later, She Said the movie seems to say, he’s so central to the culture that the film needn’t even depict him. Whatever the takeaway, the omission at least makes for a point of departure between the film and its source material. Between the two, the movie can’t help but pale in comparison, merely glossing the doggedness with which its subjects overcame the obstacles in their path. Twohey and Kantor’s work was monumental. This portrayal of it feels featherlight. 

Mike Laws is a freelance copy editor and occasional writer who roves and trawls the greater New York City area. He is originally from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and still, for some reason, loves the Baltimore Orioles.