Schrader: She Said (2022)
She Said is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, which described the investigative research that went into their epoch-creating New York Times article on Harvey Weinstein. Twohey is played here by Carey Mulligan, and Kantor by Zoe Kazan, while Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay retains as much of the investigative minutiae of the book as possible. With the exception of a fleeting montage of women walking the streets of New York City, She Said largely eschews big statements in its opening scenes, instead relying on the meticulous collation of data to build its final vision of “systemic sexism in Hollywood,” of which Weinstein is the figurehead. In other words, this is largely a docudrama, less interested in the subsequent social media volatility of the #MeToo movement than in the hushed and haunted exchanges that laid the basic groundwork for it.
If anything, the opening scenes of She Said are somewhat dour and drab, as if Weinstein had so thoroughly contamined the film industry that director Maria Schrader were suspicious of all cinematic pleasure. From Kantor’s experience of postpartum depression, to the experience of witness Laura Madden, played by Jennifer Ehle, who decides to go on the record just before having a double mastectomy, there’s an irreducible sense that the female body has been irreversibly damaged by what Weinstein represented. More specifically, there’s a pervasive suggestion that Weinstein has irrevocably exposed the labour of the cinematic female body, to the point where the whole film feels wounded, and the medium of film itself feels wounded, in the aftermath of his assaults. All of She Said has a depressive edge, even or especially at its triumphant moments, which takes the edge off the fanfare of the article. This is no more a victory lap than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s look into the Watergate conspiracy – the more that Kantor and Twohey uncover, the more there is to be uncovered.
In fact, She Said largely plays as a spiritual sequel to All the President’s Men, and perhaps the most accomplished journalistic procedural since Alan J. Pakula’s groundbreaking film. Lenkiewicz, like Kantor and Twohey themselves, signals this continuity by prefacing the film proper with an account of the investigation into Donald Trump’s assault allegations. Weinstein here is a manifestation of Trump, and emblem of the Trump era, while this Weinstein-Trump collusion produces a conspiracy to rival and even exceed Watergate. Early on, Kantor and Twohey realise that they are dealing with something bigger than a producer, a studio, or even a single pattern of abuse. Instead, they have to contend with “an entire machine, a supply chain, wherever movies are being made or sold.” Hollywood becomes a synecdoche for a broader assault culture that achieved new visibility with the New York Times article, and whose enormous coordinates and full cinematic implications can only loom around the edges of the screenplay here: “If white men had a playground, this would be it.”
However, this continuity with All the President’s Men hinges most dramatically on the nature of the non-disclosure agreements that Weinstein forced upon his many victims. The clauses of these NDAs were so punitive that they effectively returned Kantor and Twohey’s investigation to an analog information economy. This was the part of the case I had appreciated the least – how thoroughly Weinstein’s actions had been erased from the digital sphere. Not only did the NDAs require women to hand over all evidence, documentation and pertinent data, but in many cases they prevented women from talking to police, doctors, families or therapists without Weinstein’s express permission. As the film proceeds, these NDAs become more baroque and arcane, but also converge on one overarching demand – that Weinstein’s victims refrain from engaging with any media outside Weinstein’s empire, and treat Weinstein himself as the epicentre and arbiter of all media. Blackballing careers was only the last and most discoverable part of this process, preceded as it was by a total demediation of all Weinstein’s victims across every conceivable media platform. Hence the paradox of She Said, and the investigation generally – it reverted Twohey and Kantor to a pre-digital sphere, but depended on the hypermediated networking of data that has only become possible in the digital era. Twohey and Kantor thus hypermediate in order to tell the stories of women who have been demediated, giving their investigation a remarkably dynamic tone.
In that sense, She Said reframes Weinstein’s legacy in quite a pointed and ingenious way. As a spokesman for the indie 90s, and the diversification of the studio system, he played a critical role in keeping cinema relevant in the face of a burgeoning digital regime. Yet that innovation is deflected, here, into a growing prescience that Weinstein embodies the surveillant potential of both analog and digital technologies, and the nexus between them, the point at which they are most fluid, mutable and mercurial. That produces such a voluminous monstrosity and reach that Twohey and Kantor can only initially approach it aesthetically, by evoking a conspiratorial web that sees them seek out the most marginal (and in some ways, improbable) of his victims before bringing it back to a central thesis of systemic assault in the third act of their investigation. In doing so, they experience the same informational density as Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate era, the same convoluted paper trail, as Weinstein, like Nixon, erects an enormous protective infrastructure around himself. Weinstein here is the ultimate auteur, like Flaubert’s formulation of the omniscient third person narrator – like God in the world, he is present everywhere in the film, visible nowhere.
No surprise, then, that She Said conjures up Weinstein’s presence through the analog hush of New Hollywood, suggesting rather than depicting a muted web of corruption beneath the surface that tends to become quieter and more brooding whenever the two journalists move closer to the thresholds of each NDA clause. There’s the same sense of hiding in plain sight that you find in 70s thrillers, the need to occupy public space in a more mercurial manner now that surveillance is everywhere. While Weinstein may be a manifestation of Trump, it’s only insofar as Trump himself is an extension of the surveillant other of New Hollywood – continually watching, but capable of removing almost all trace of himself as well: “You have to imagine that every call you make is being recorded, and that you are always being followed.” For all the horror of his assaults, Weinstein ramifies first and foremost, here, in terms of his preternatural powers of surveillance – or, rather, the two amount to the same thing, since his assault is embedded in a male gaze that he takes to its utter apotheosis. And, as the apotheosis not only of New Hollywood, but of the entire male gaze, he remains omniscient but unfilmable, like the conditions of production of the film itself, and of film more generally. When we do “see” him, it’s only as the back of a head, eyes turned away from us, but also commanding the film, in the same way that he reportedly turned up at Gwyneth Paltrow’s house, for no other apparent reason than to let her know that he was watching her.
She Said thus uses Weinstein to reckon with the driving paradox of New Hollywood, and its legacy in the indie 90s – that the surveillance organ that directors feared was that of the studio system itself, already embedded in and determining their very attempt to articulate it. There is, in that sense, no way to entirely escape Weinstein through the medium itself, again explaining the strangely muted and modest tone of She Said, which only ever permits us glimpses of the Weinstein surveillance machine, perhaps most eerily through his various female proxies and enablers. Time and again, these enablers, talk in arcane euphemisms that only increase his occult power, referring loosely, say, to “the effect he had on Rose McGowan.” You sense that Weinstein has commanded language much as he has commanded film language, making any articulation or enunciation an act of precarity, much as the film focuses on the extraordinary affective labour that went into the publication of a single article.
With that paranoia front and centre, the second act of She Said sinks into the topology of an older kind of procedural investigation. Since Weinstein seems to have colonised media, Twohey and Kantor largely avoid conversations on the phone, and rely instead on the peripatetic rhythms of moving (and living) from doorbell to doorbell, cold call to cold call, invoking Woodward and Bernstein as they accrue furtive data from hushed conversations on porches or property boundaries, along with late night visits’ to contacts’ houses. This rhythm quickly expands out to London, Wales and Silicon Valley, but in the spirit of the 70s the surveillance is always moodiest in American urban space, especially Central Park, which reverts to a New Hollywood wildness as we wander through its rambles, hiding in plain sight. As the third act arrives, these assignations grow more nocturnal, segueing into anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night, and culminating with the film’s equivalent of Deep Throat – Irwin Reiter, the executive vice president of accounting and finance for Weinstein, played by Zach Greiner, who played a major role in the case. Kantor meets Reiter regularly in the middle of night, and while they opt for a bar instead of the carpark of Deep Throat, the mood is the same. In scenes drawn straight from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Schrader immerses us in the moodiest hush of the film, textured only by a minimal Bernard Herrmann-esque score, as Reiter gives Kantor a series of cryptic acronyms, keys to the Weinstein digital code, and cinematographer Natasha Braier inokes the inky palette of Gordon Willis in the darkness that gathers around the car that follows Kantor whenever she leaves these sessions.
She Said never quite leaves this moment, just as the spectre of Deep Throat never stops haunting All the President’s Men as a reminder of how much more remained to be discovered. Like Pakula’s film, the great achievement of She Said is its capacity to capture how easily Weinstein’s actions could have sunk back into the murky hush that sustained it for decades – the same hush that sustained Nixon, who feels oddly vivid and present in Lenkiewicz’s screenplay. Twohey and Kantor both fear different iterations of this silence, before and after the story – on the one hand, the possibility that “we might know all this and go to our graves knowing it”; on the other, the prospect that “the story will be published” but that “people won’t care.” The final beat of the investigation sees Twohey faced with a barrage of noise from Weinstein’s team of lawyers, all orchestrated by Weinstein himself, who sits with his back to camera, as the camera gradually bypasses them all and zooms into Twohey’s face. In the duration of this shot, the longest in the film, she finally steels herself to the violence of the silence beneath the Weinstein bluster, and seems to acknowledge that this silence will always remain, that the full sweep of the Weinstein machine can never be completely known.
That silence is the final note of the film as well, a remarkably haunting note for those film fans like myself who grew up in the 90s. So many of the films from this era were infused with nostalgia for the independence of New Hollywood, and with veneration for All the President’s Men as an emblem of proto-indie media (it’s the reason one of my best friends became a journalist). At the same time, there were strange beats during this era that are only legible in light of #MeToo, such as the sudden disappearances of actresses, beloved figures like Mira Sorvino, Rose McGowan or Ashley Judd who just kind of fell off the map with no clear context. That space between the conscious and unconscious 90s is encapsulated by the dexterity with which She Said moves between diegetic and non-diegetic cues in its treatment of these actresses, some of whom are played by other actresses, and some of whom play themselves. It was inchoately moving, then, to see Ashley Judd playing herself in the final scenes, but playing herself in the past, in the moments before she decided to go public on Weinstein, in a spectral version of the many roles she might have had if not for Weinstein. In that moment lies the plangent and mercurial touch of She Said, which realises it cannot fully heal cinema in the wake of Weinstein, at least not single-handedly, and that all mourning is incomplete, challenging the audience to the kind of collective healing labour Twohey and Kantor started.
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