Monday, December 5, 2022


“Everything is sex, except sex, which is power.” — Janelle Monáe

Never underestimate Hollywood’s ability to turn any true story into a movie, even, or maybe especially, its own scandals. How quickly the shock of the new turns into the grist for the content mill. Here it’s She Said, a dramatization of the reporting of the 2017 New York Times story that exposed the decades-long abuses of producer Harvey Weinstein. That he was a bully and a bad boss had been widely known the whole time. Whispers of his sex crimes floated, too, usually on the margins of gossip reports and blind items. But it took this reporting, and others, to break a culture of silence around such shameful practices. This then became one of the first sparks that lit the #MeToo fire, a rolling bonfire of stories outing predatory men in a variety of industries. I wish we could, five years later, point to something more systematic that’s changed other than the ousting of various bad men from prominent positions they held. Still, that’s better than nothing. What we have with this new movie, from director Maria Schrader (Unorthodox) and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) could’ve easily been a major Hollywood studio simplifying the case and building to a false triumph. Instead, it achieves a kind of unsettled cumulative force. Gathering sources, fact checking, finding corroborating evidence, and eventually clicking publish has a certain tension, and knowing it is only one step toward justice and not justice entire.

There’s definite inspiration from Spotlight in She Said. There’s the just-the-facts approach to interviews and collecting information. There’s the flatly honest glimpses into the home life of reporters. There’s the tone and style—serious, direct, plain, with accumulative force—much like the reporting it portrays. But where the former movie took a story an audience knew the general outline of, and used the specifics of the procedural undertaking to draw deeper understanding as the layers of secrets were peeled back, this one seems to proceed from a point of assumed knowledge on the part of the audience. Some of the names that are dropped and stories that are referenced are mentioned as if we already have that understanding. But there’s still that sense of unfolding discovery, as two reporters (Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan) are tasked by their editor (Patricia Clarkson) of getting the story in publishable shape. The sleuthing elements make for a sturdy, simple studio drama, with lots of talky sequences, some flatly expositional and others with a bit more personality, bringing to life something like a convincing portrait of the import job it reenacts.

Because a good journalism movie is also a detective story, it’s notable that the movie starts with the assumption that the guy who is suspected of committing the crime is absolutely the one who did it. The tension becomes not so much learning new information about the story—although impactful one-or-few-scene performances from Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton, along with Ashley Judd as herself, go a long way to dramatizing the pain of their persecutions—but the moral weight of asking the women confiding in them to go on the record. Mulligan and Kazan, inhabiting casually credible portrayals of working mothers, feel acutely the potential pain they’re leading these victims toward, and the sensitivity needed to get them to all agree to take uncertain steps toward outing their powerful victimizer. Its best scenes are ones that drive relentlessly into the process of doing so, in tandem with running through the necessary steps to draft, approve, and fine-tune a major article. The newsroom scenes of shop talk and phone calls and long meetings is a fine conclusion to all this hard work—and the final shot, of a cursor hovering over a button, makes an interesting counterpoint to the whirring presses of newspaper movies past. It’s a culmination of hard work that’s deceptively simple. What happens next is more difficult.

An even talkier exploration of this sort of abuse, and the consequences of speaking out, is writer-director Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. It’s set in a repressive Mennonite community—a few families on a secluded stretch of farmland—where the men keep the women uneducated and under their control. The story starts with the men off to town, leaving the women alone and able to discuss the sexual abuses to which they’ve been subjected. We see haunting flashbacks—quick cut images, really—of bruises on thighs, blood on mattresses. It is upsetting material handled with a soberness and lack of exploitation. Thus Polley keeps most of the film’s action to one meeting where the women gather to talk out their options. Should they stay and fight? Should they stay and forgive? Should they leave? There are few easy answers, and little agreement, at the start. Polley’s filmmaking is typically engaged with such questions, like her best work, autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell which most explicitly sees the ways in which people can thrive on false assumptions about themselves and those around them. That, too, sees the benefits of exposing the truth and talking it out. So here the women are in pain, expressed in different ways, and stand up the arguments that flow from these perspectives.

Throughout, there’s a collection of great actresses—Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy—ventriloquizing differing points of view, talking points brought to life. They’re partly real, convincing people, partly imagined inhabitations of their thorny debate. Adding to this incomplete sense of reality, the movie is shot in a sickly digital pallor—a super-wide frame with a stretch of wan color correction that seems to bleach out all sense of specificity. It feels like a well-cast experiment, in unforgiving digital that washes out the light and leaves the figures in the frame stranded in a smudge of pale fuzziness. It convincingly makes what could’ve been pastoral, and maybe even a rural ideal on the surface, into something that looks as uninhabitable as an alien planet. This emphasizes both the discomfort of their position, and the difficulties of seeing a way out. But it also emphasizes the conceit of it all—a sense of otherness and remove that heightens the dramaturgy and flattens the debate. I found myself wishing the movie was as powerful as its subject matter and, though it is respectful and an engaged intellectual exercise, the form and function never quite click into place for the transcendence of purpose for which it’s searching. Still, as reality continues to prove, there’s value in the talking, and we’re better off not letting such abuses fall under the powerful protection of silence, even if the results are imperfect.

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