DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been five years since New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey first wrote about Harvey Weinstein's history of sexual assault allegations and helped ignite the #MeToo movement. Now there's a new movie called "She Said," based on their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation and their subsequent book about their investigation. The movie stars Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan and opens this week in theaters. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: At first glance, the taut and engrossing drama "She Said" seems to follow in the tradition of step-by-step newspaper procedurals like "All The President's Men" and "Spotlight." Like those earlier titles, it makes journalists look awfully good, not just by casting them with famous actors but also by showing how difficult, thankless and tedious their work can be as they struggle to break that huge, history-making story. But because the story here is about Harvey Weinstein, "She Said" can't help but play differently. It's both powerful and a little unnerving to see a movie about a film producer's downfall emerge from the very industry he once dominated. The movie's most eerily poignant touch is the casting of Ashley Judd as herself, agonizing over whether she should go public with her story about having fended off Weinstein's hotel room advances years ago. The director, Maria Schrader, and the screenwriter, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, effectively recreate the fear and anxiety that women felt before the reckoning of #MeToo, when powerful male abusers faced little to no accountability.
As the movie opens in 2016, The New York Times investigative reporter Megan Twohey, played by Carey Mulligan, has just written about new sexual assault allegations against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in the wake of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape. She teams up with another reporter, Jodi Kantor, played by Zoe Kazan, who's received a few tips about Harvey Weinstein. In this scene, Kantor catches Twohey up to speed on what she's learned.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE SAID")
CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Megan Twohey) What is it exactly that we're looking at here?
ZOE KAZAN: (As Jodi Kantor) We're looking at extreme sexual harassment in the workplace. These young women walked into what they all had reason to believe were business meetings with a producer, an employer. They were hopeful. They were expecting a serious conversation about their work or a possible project. Instead, they say he met them with threats and sexual demands. They claim assault and rape. If that can happen to Hollywood actresses, who else is it happening to?
CHANG: That's a good question, especially since actors like Rose McGowan and Gwyneth Paltrow, who've worked with Weinstein in the past, are unwilling to speak on the record. Kantor and Twohey decide to focus on the many women who used to work at Weinstein's company, Miramax. They split up the legwork, doggedly tackling the story from every angle. And gradually, with the invaluable guidance of their editor Rebecca Corbett - the terrific Patricia Clarkson - they uncover a vast network of enablers who helped Weinstein not only commit his crimes but also keep them hidden via settlements and non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. The reporters complement each other nicely, and so do the actors playing them. Mulligan plays Twohey as the steelier of the two. There's an amusing moment when she decides to take the lead on an interview since she's taller and presumably more intimidating. Kazan emphasizes Kantor's empathy, her skill at building trust and coaxing information out of even the most reluctant sources.
One of the pleasures of "She Said" is that it subverts the usual Hollywood formula of the male workaholic and his supportive, long-suffering wife. Here, it's Kantor and Twohey working tirelessly at all hours while their husbands hold down the fort and take care of the kids. There's something meaningful about that dynamic, especially since so many of Weinstein's former assistants were young women on the cusp of successful film careers that were suddenly cut short.
Samantha Morton gives a terrific performance as Zelda Perkins, who rivetingly details an incident in the '90s when she spoke out against Weinstein for harassing a colleague. And Jennifer Ehle is quietly heartbreaking as another ex-employee, Laura Madden, who musters the courage to break her two-decade silence. Weinstein himself remains a mostly peripheral figure, shown only from behind in a few scenes in which he tries to pressure the Times' executive editor, Dean Baquet, played by an unflappable Andre Braugher. The movie remains tightly focused and disciplined as Kantor and Twohey race to publish their story, especially after learning that another Weinstein investigation by Ronan Farrow is about to break in The New Yorker. But the Times reporters are also determined to get the story right and make sure that they've built an airtight case.
As a lover of movies about journalism, I ate up every detail of the drama inside the Times building even while knowing that I was watching a more polished and streamlined version of events. There's something a little tidy and anticlimactic about how "She Said" ultimately plays out, especially since it leaves the aftermath of Kantor and Twohey's reporting off-screen. At the same time, it's fitting that the movie should end before we can see the full impact of the #MeToo movement that journalists helped ignite across every industry and all over the world. That's a much bigger story and one that, five years later, is still being written.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "She Said." On Monday's show, we hear about new kinds of medicine and treatments in which cells are being repurposed as tools to fight illness, including cancer. We talk with Siddartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and cell biologist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer." His new book is called "The Song Of The Cell" - hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER AND LEON PARKER'S "THE LAST TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.