Five years ago, New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s gross and violent abuse of his power in the New York Times; two years later, in 2019, they wrote a book about it. What makes their book so riveting — it is absolutely engrossing, required reading — is its meticulous attention to the two-inches-forward, one-inch-back work of reporting such an explosive story. Getting the facts right, crafting a legally and ethically airtight expose, and dodging the best defenses that power and money can buy is not easy. They pulled it off, and the book explains how.
But Twohey and Kantor’s book is mostly about texting reluctant sources and being rebuffed by frightened victims, and while it’s great on the page, none of that is inherently cinematic. So I was delighted, and startled, to realize that the film adaptation of She Said (out November 18) nabs the tone and tenor brilliantly, with Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan starring as Twohey and Kantor. How it treated the menacing presence of Weinstein himself is even more brilliant.
I watched the film adaptation of She Said on a cold October day in New York, just blocks away from the Times Square building where the journalists did their work and, eventually, confronted Weinstein himself. I’d just realized that morning, thanks to my Facebook “memories,” that the story broke five years earlier. Somehow, it had been five long years since #MeToo. I remember the heady feeling that hung in the air at that time — a sense that something in Hollywood and the world at large was changing, that long-accepted exploitation was being punished, and that nothing would ever be the same. It was frightening. It was thrilling.
Now, as the film approaches its November release, Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year sentence for sex crimes in New York. He’s on trial in Los Angeles on rape charges, with arguments starting on Monday, October 24; he also faces charges in London. He’s 70 years old and, according to his attorney, in poor health. It’s fairly safe to say he’ll die in jail. He’s a pariah in the industry that coddled him for so long, a response that feels at times as much like an attempt to purge something from their conscience as any actual fit of virtue. (After all, a powerful person accused of abusing their power today seems as likely to complain of “cancel culture” as to apologize.)
But Weinstein, and everything that came after his downfall, still looms over the industry. TV and movies — from the richly complex Tár, about a female conductor who takes advantage of a youthful protege, to the upcoming second season of HBO’s The Vow, which unpacks the abuses of self-help guru and NXIVM cult leader Keith Raniere — feel like they couldn’t have existed without the Weinstein story jolting everyone awake. Say “Harvey” out loud, and everyone knows who you’re talking about. And in casual conversations, fresh accusations against other figures tend to get measured mentally against his crimes — it’s like Weinstein is a measuring stick by which almost everyone else seems bad, but not as bad. If we punish him sufficiently, you can almost hear the cultural subconscious musing, then maybe everything can go back more or less to normal. As if it’s the man who matters, not the system.
Weinstein’s shadow is nearly impossible to grapple with effectively, and the industry is still scrambling, in part because efforts like Time’s Up have flailed and in part because so much of the Hollywood that might make a movie about him is in some way complicit.
But the bigger reason is simply that Harvey fought hard his whole career to cast that shadow. He was so effective that, eventually, most of the industry fell beneath it. (One of the most satisfying moments in She Said comes when we find out that when Weinstein met with Martin Scorsese, it was Weinstein who was nervous because Scorsese “hates him.”)
The extent to which Harvey had the industry in his thrall — and the way his presence smothered so many, whether or not he directly assaulted them — was richly illustrated in The Assistant, Kitty Green’s phenomenal 2019 film starring Julia Garner. The central character is a young woman with a new job in the film industry; for the most part, we follow her through her day doing menial tasks, like making travel arrangements and sheepdogging visitors through the office. We never catch a clear glimpse of her boss and only hear his voice a little.
But we know it’s Harvey. You can feel him in the room even when he’s not there, the threat of his temper is thick and stifling in the air. Watching The Assistant, you feel the anxiety and dread that came with crossing his path. To have the sun blocked out by his shadow. A worse movie would have had him thundering through the room, leering and shouting, making explicit what’s felt much more viscerally in a vacuum. (See, for instance, the portrayal of Roger Ailes in the abysmal 2019 movie Bombshell.) Without him there physically, our imaginations work to fill in the details.
Which is in a sense what we’ve all been doing for years. You may not have known Harvey, but you probably know someone like him. Your memories fill in the blanks. Even in disgrace, men like him tend to suck up all the air in the room, to inevitably drive the discourse back to themselves. As She Said richly illustrates, identifying yourself can bring down more abuse from the public, so many choose to remain as anonymous as possible. So we’re still sitting here five years later, using “Weinstein” as a shorthand, and we will be for a long time.
That’s what makes a movie like She Said or its upcoming inadvertent companion piece Women Talking so effective: both center the women, instead of their attackers, by pushing the latter off-screen as much as possible. She Said is the story of two women who haven’t directly been the victims of the man they’re investigating but live, as the film shows, in a few key scenes, in a culture that fosters him and others like him. In one scene, Mulligan (as Twohey) screams at a man in a bar who simply will not leave them alone. In another, Kazan (as Kantor) discovers, to her sinking horror, that her young daughter knows the word “rape” — though not its full meaning — because kids at school throw it around.
Similarly, in Women Talking, a group of Mennonite women that have been systematically raped by men from their community for years, must decide how to move forward. Do they stay and fight? Should they leave and establish a new community? Is it better to just remain and hope things get better? The movie spends nearly all of its runtime in a barn loft with the women as they talk through what to do next.
She Said focuses on Twohey, Kantor, and the women who stepped forward because they are taking action in much the way that Women Talking spends nearly all its time with the women who are trying to decide how to deal with their own heinous assaulters. Both movies show women trying to figure out what it would take not just to be sure the offenders are met with justice but to build a world where ongoing acceptance of their offenses is unthinkable in the first place.
Not only does keeping the abusers off-screen keep our focus on the women taking their fates into their own hands, but it also starves the abusers of exactly what they want: attention. The chance to brush accusations away. The chance to put themselves back in the center of the story.
Both She Said and Women Talking carry their theses in their titles: that the goal of the abuser is to keep his victim silent and that talking is how their power can be broken, at least if the right person is listening. But neither end in a proclamation of triumph because victims who raise their voices aren’t suddenly free. In She Said, Weinstein victims, played in particularly extraordinary performances by Jennifer Ehle and Samantha Morton (as well as Ashley Judd, as herself), remind us that there are thousands of these stories, and none are simply resolved now. The wounds leave scars.
Five years later, we’re still trying to walk out of Harvey’s shadow; other accused abusers are escaping their own consequences. It’s their names that still dominate the headlines, their toxicity that still attracts those desperate to maintain their stranglehold on power. It’s ironic, but illuminating, that snatching the spotlight away from them — the only thing that can truly break their power, that turns the focus from the man to the system that enabled him — falls to those who know, all too well, that changing the world happens not with one splashy story, but an inch at a time.
She Said opens in theaters on November 18. Women Talking opens in theaters on December 2. The Assistant is streaming on Hulu and is available to rent or purchase on digital platforms.