Tom McCarthy is a very clever writer who has succeeded in drawing audiences to a difficult genre: thrillers about newspapers. He won an Original Screenplay Oscar for Spotlight, made in 2015, was a riveting movie about how the Boston Globe exposed a cover-up involving a defrocked priest. His new ABC series Alaska Daily focuses on a hot New York journalist (Hilary Swank) who is exiled into covering crime in Anchorage.
McCarthy is artful in avoiding a major trap of the genre: Newsmen are not star material (not even Woodward and Bernstein). Much of their work is consumed by ponderous procedurals.
These problems are readily apparent in the new movie She Said, which is struggling to find an audience. Universal was courageous in funding a movie that, to a fault, provides the most meticulous and factually honest account of a newspaper investigation. Also, the one most in need of Tom McCarthy.
She Said tells the story of the relentless efforts of two reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan), to take down Harvey Weinstein for his systematic pattern of sexual abuse.
Their lengthy and expensive mission was backed by The New York Times – a remarkable commitment that helped foster the #MeToo movement.
Most of the reviews of the movie range from positive to ecstatic, reflecting a point of view toward the movement as well as the movie. As even The Times‘ own reviewer acknowledges, “Fans of All the President’s Men may wish for something zingier – the tang of conspiracy or even shadowed parking garages.”
In fact, She Said not only lacks jeopardy, a key element of drama, but it also lacks a heavy. Weinstein has no presence in the film (the audience briefly sees his back and hears his voice). At one screening, two young filmgoers asked me, “Who is this man, and why did he stoke such fear?”
I understand the reasons for the decision: The perpetrator is in jail for life, and the filmmakers (Maria Schrader directed the film) did not want to honor his presence. At the same time, generations of filmgoers might puzzle over his menace.
No one today wants to acknowledge even knowing him, fearing charges of complicity. Even Quentin Tarantino, who made nine films with him including Pulp Fiction, goes to great lengths to avoid his name. “I should have known,” he declares.
But is it possible to make a thriller without a heavy, however disturbing his presence might have been?
And it was disturbing. At his peak, Weinstein lived in a perverse fever dream: The great and famous courted him, fabulous parties celebrated him, beautiful people surrounded him.
Yet his appetite for power was matched by his hunger for danger: His big movies were always about to collapse. Every major relationship, such as his rich deal with Disney, seemed on the edge of disaster – usually due to reckless overspending. Always surrounded by sexy people, even sex apparently was about danger, not play.
She Said carefully, even ploddingly, tracks Weinstein’s self-destruction — and destruction of others — as it probes reluctant victims as well as the cowering bystanders. Weinstein had scrupulously hidden the secrets of his unscrupulous actions, and crimes.
Tom McCarthy someday might decide to make a thriller about a Weinstein-like nightmare figure. On the other hand, he might decide to assign him to the dark past. One we all hope never to re-live.