TV Review: ‘Weinstein,’ a Documentary From Frontline and the BBC, on PBS

Weinstein PBS Documentary
Images courtesy of PBS

A woman describes Harvey Weinstein, clad only in a towel, making her feel terrified and trapped as she tried to get away from him. Her story isn’t new: We have been inundated with tales of dropped towels, open robes, hotel suites, requests for “massages,” ominous threats, mental and physical harm, and, of course, the machinery of complicity that grew more intimidating over time.

The alleged attack that Frontline’s hourlong “Weinstein” documentary examines in its opening minutes occurred in 1980, around the time that the producer was transitioning from the concert promotion business in Buffalo to the more glamorous film world. So whatever familiarity viewers may have with the basic contours of Suza Maher-Wilson’s story is injected with a jolt of sickening nausea when you contemplate the sheer length of the producer’s trail of misdeeds.

That trail endured for decades. Survivors have described more than 100 alleged encounters so far and those are just the ones we know about.

Of course the public is already quite familiar with much of what this brisk Frontline documentary efficiently outlines: That women in the entertainment industry allegedly endured a barrage of sickening and criminal behavior from Weinstein for four decades, and that an expensive apparatus of denial and collusion protected him. But knowing the overall shape of the saga is one thing. Hearing details from the survivors — and Weinstein’s former employees — offers a bracing kind of immediacy.

This documentary, a co-production of Frontline and the BBC, offers not just snippets of testimony but also a sense of powerful specificity (all quotes, by the way, are from a preliminary transcript). “Weinstein” is both a helpful primer and a necessary addition to the #MeToo movement; it’s one more brick in an large and unavoidable wall.

It helps to see the faces of those Weinstein hurt, and it’s important to witness what recalling these incidents does to these women (among them Zoe Brock, Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and Katherine Kendall, who are pictured above). “Weinstein” reminds the viewer, on a visceral level, that these women are still angry. Not just about being attacked, but at being silenced for so long.

Back in Buffalo, “we all felt it was typical of someone in a position of power to wield that over younger girls,” Maher-Wilson tells Frontline.

Paula Wachowiak, an intern who also worked on Weinstein’s “The Burning,” describes a similarly appalling situation — a business meeting, unexpected nudity, a hotel bed, distress and confusion. She didn’t tell many people about what happened at the time. She was convinced that no one would care.

She wasn’t wrong.

“Weinstein” offers a primer on the producer’s career, interspersing the timeline of his ascent with interviews with journalists, lawyers, survivors and former Miramax and Weinstein Company executives, some of whom are on camera for the first time. Paul Webster, formerly of Miramax, says in the ‘90s, the company represented “the epicenter of where I wanted to be,” and so he overlooked unsettling behavior from the man who was the public face of the firm.

It was likely that “a man who was so abusive and bullying in every aspect of his life would bring that abuse into the sexual arena,” Webster says. “I think looking back that I did know, and I chose to suppress it. I chose to hide from that fact.”

Many did. And some survivors are still bound by the strictures of NDAs. Their interviews are surrounded by reporting that fills out the contexts of the legal wrangling.

A Weinstein spokesperson tells Frontline that “over a period of 30 years there were actually less than 10 settlements of harassment claims,” as if that excuses, well, anything. The documentary also adds this new Weinstein statement to the public record: “[W]hile he denies any non-consensual sexual conduct, he is deeply apologetic to those offended by his behavior. It is wrong and irresponsible to conflate claims of impolitic behavior or consensual sexual contact later regretted, with an untrue claim of criminal conduct.”

“Impolitic behavior.”

Weinstein spent decades drafting off the work of skilled storytellers; you’d think he’d be able to come up with something better than this hollow bluster. But I suppose that’s the best he can do when his support structure is gone, and only lawsuits and criminal inquiries remain. 

It’s not as though no one tried to pierce the thick walls of protection that surrounded Weinstein for years. For the first time, Ken Auletta of the New Yorker describes hearing in 2002 about misconduct allegations and a nondisclosure agreement with former Miramax employee Zelda Perkins, who also appears in “Weinstein.” Auletta says he was understandably frustrated at being unable to confirm and print what he’d heard.

Another journalist, Kim Masters, recalls telling Weinstein: “I’ve heard you rape women.”

“He did not seem shocked or outraged,” Masters recalls. “You would expect a normal person to say ‘I’m sorry, what? How dare you!’ And there was none of that at all.”

Weinstein continued to go about his terrible business thinking he was, as she says, “untouchable.” With many willing lackeys in the media spinning him into a legend — or being fed gossip items in return for staying away from rumors about him — Weinstein wasn’t wrong to think he was safe.

Some of his key tools involved the intimidation or destruction of those who dared question him. An amFAR attorney, Tom Ajamie, who raised an issue with the proceeds of a charity auction recalls being told by an angry Weinstein that his minions were investigating him. The producer shouted, “You’re not so clean!”

One of the saddest moments arrives when Sean Young, whose brilliant work I’d admired in everything from “Blade Runner” to “No Way Out,” recounts her tale. In the early ‘90s, after working on one of his films, Weinstein allegedly pulled his penis out in front of her, and she describes the price she paid after making him feel “foolish” for having done so. Of course, Weinstein wasn’t the only one who may have had a chilling effect on her professional trajectory. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that having “upset a few important men,” as she says, very likely contributed to the precipitous decline of her career.

And before you email me a recapitulation of all the rumors about Young that have circulated for decades — don’t. Instead, think about all the actresses whose lives and careers were ruined, or at least deeply damaged, not just by Weinstein but by his powerful and vindictive brethren. And recall that the difference between Weinstein and Young is that every woman in the entertainment industry has no margin of error, while Weinstein’s ability to destroy only grew during his lengthy reign of terror.

“It’s sort of unfathomable,” says New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “Not one formal investigation by human resources, by the corporation, into Harvey’s conduct.”

It’s entirely fathomable, if one assumes that most Hollywood power systems and Human Resources departments are set up to aid and cover up for abusers, not impede them. And even when a survivor tries to call upon help from other kinds of authority, she frequently pays a price.

As the documentary makes clear, the edifice of deniability and intimidation that Weinstein and his enablers built began to crumble when model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez not only reported Weinstein’s alleged assault to the New York Police Department in 2015, but was brave enough to record Weinstein’s disturbing entreaties to her on another day. In that recording, part of which is heard in the documentary, he seems to admit to some of his alleged behavior.

Gutierrez recalls for the documentary’s producers what happened after she got away from Weinstein: Items in gossip columns began to falsely claim that she was a sex worker. She says prosecutors working for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. asked her if she was a prostitute. Vance, who is not interviewed on camera, chose not to file any charges against Weinstein, reiterating in a statement to Frontline that there was “insufficient” evidence to prove a crime.

Gutierrez — like the other women who tell their stories in this damning hour — was just one woman caught in Weinstein’s web. One is reminded of the legend of the Minotaur — part bull, part man, terrifying and voracious. Weinstein may have been a monstrous beast inhabiting that maze, but he wasn’t the only one. And for survivors of abuse, assault and harassment, no matter what happens to their monster, the labyrinth of judgment, bureaucracy, fury and damage remains.

As Hollywood prepares for Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, members of the industry might want to contemplate the fact that, despite the excoriation and exile of Weinstein, the kinds of vast power differentials described in this documentary still exist. The systems of complicity that helped — and continue to help — more than just one powerful producer haven’t really gone anywhere.

The vast outpouring of fine reporting that was unleashed by the Weinstein scandal has made it abundantly clear that the Oscar-winning producer was the product of a long-established culture of complicity and a deeply inequitable, misogynist system, not its sole architect or beneficiary. For months, Variety — and many other publications — have reported on men who have been described by multiple sources as assaulters and harassers — and who are still on the job. 

Though the mood of the moment has certainly changed, and some individuals have woken up, have the workings of power really changed? Have the most powerful institutions truly come to grips with how deep the rot goes? The Weinstein era brought one man down, but whether it will bring an entire system of abuse into the light — let alone change it — remains to be seen.

Weinstein himself is now disgraced, a toppled idol in the desert. But he rose from and helped build an industry that turns redemption stories about disgraced men into both an art form and a source of profit. “Weinstein” includes a snippet of video taken not long after the New York Times and the New Yorker first published their stories about his misdeeds.

“We all make mistakes,” Weinstein says. “Second chance, I hope.”

TV Review: ‘Weinstein,’ a Documentary From Frontline and the BBC, on PBS

<p class="p1"><span class="s1">Documentary; PBS; 9 p.m. Fri. March 2, (check local listings). 51 min. </span></p>

  • Crew: <p class="p1"><span class="s1">Directors, Jane McMullen, Leo Telling; executive producers, Raney Aronson-Rath, Karen Wightman; senior producers, Dan Edge, Frank Koughan; co-producer, Nick Verbitsky. </span></p>