From l: Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher, and Patricia Clarkson in She Said
She Said is the “coulda-shoulda” disappointment of the Oscar movie season thus far. The story is still great—reporters, who have real lives outside of their work, dig into the rumors of sexual exploitation in Hollywood and end up bringing Hollywood mogul/sex offender Harvey Weinstein to justice. Some famous victims, e.g., Ashley Judd, actually play themselves, adding a certain frisson of excitement to the enterprise. The quest to get people to go on the record with their experiences with the Miramax owner is a key part of the suspense, and a central element of the plot. Plus it’s a tale where hard work and dedication actually pay off. Yet…it fails to do little more than lay out a story. It’s just OK, and not anywhere near as engaging or exciting as it coulda-shoulda been.
The strengths are the actors, many of whom work harder here than they should have to. Fortunately, the slightly more dominant of the two main reporter characters is played the (I believe) future Oscar winner Carey Mulligan (An Education, Promising Young Woman). Mulligan suggests depths of joy and pain almost effortlessly, and is the heart and center of the film. The other lead is Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), who works as hard as Mulligan but fails to reach her heights (and depths). Patricia Clarkson, usually a strength in any film, seems to walk through her Streep-like role here. Andre Braugher brings his usual gravitas and adds a welcome jolt of authority to his role. As two of Weinstein’s victims, Jennifer Ehle and Angela Yeoh are particularly strong. But the standout of the supporting performances is Peter Friedman’s (“Succession”), one of those actors whose face we all recognize but we don’t know his name. His part is all contradictions and subtle slime, and might grab him a Supporting Actor nomination if it weren’t so uncomfortable to experience.
So what are the actors working so hard against? Two things: the script and the cinematography. The script is a solid grade B first draft that tends to just sit there telling us things, losing opportunity after opportunity to let us infer anything for ourselves. Great German director Ernst Lubitsch is known for his famous rule of 2 plus 2 equaling 4. He rightly claims that giving the viewer 2 plus 2 is the filmmaker’s job, and adding it up is the viewer’s job. Telling the viewer the answer is 4 is what is wrong with too many films, this one included. Just one example: it turns out that famous lawyer Gloria Allred’s daughter Lisa Bloom is somewhat ironically advising Weinstein legally. But instead of allowing us as viewers to taste the irony ourselves, we’re told right away that Bloom is Allred’s daughter, and later, there is a painfully obvious reference to the “feminist icon” Allred and the “shock, shock” that the daughter of the women defending half the high -sexual harassment cases in America is actually helping the bad guy, a sexual predator himself. The rest of the script is as generic and basic as that, usually telling us what something means, and then overly explaining (instead of allowing us to discover) what must happen next. That approach is solid (if boring) and helps keep things clear in the swirl of activity, but it fails to engage.
Unfortunately, the camerawork is similar. I remember being surprised when the film finally gave us a semi-emotional close-up during an important interview that gave the scene some punch and energy. There are a lot—a lot—of medium shots that keep everyone in view but end up keeping us at something of a distance throughout the film. Since the story includes the private lives and personal struggles of the reporters, there is an expectation that we are going to connect with the issues of post-partum depression, work-life balance that includes young children and husbands, and the growing personal connection between the two leads. But between the script and the cinematography, we see it all at a distance, and we observe rather than experience.
The film unfortunately pales in comparison to two films that have similar story arcs, but do it so much better: the more recent Spotlight (2015) and the classic All the President’s Men (1976). As with She Said, these films have endings we already know but are nonetheless filled with suspense, emotional peaks, touching side stories, and flawed and believable central characters we find it easy to relate to. Some might call She Said’s approach cool and understated, and its central story can evoke strong and varied reactions to the specific case of Weinstein or the more general issues related to sexual coercion and power imbalances. If those maddening issues being addressed in a rather flat manner is enough, the film will work for the viewer. But therein lies the true disappointment here: A great and powerful story isn’t given the dramatic treatment it—and we–truly deserve.