Watching Netflix’s documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, you sense that director Brian Knappenberger and his team had no idea when they started the project that their final cut would end up focusing on the breakdown of journalistic norms in America. Halfway through, the film pivots away from its initial subject, the court case that brought down Gawker.com, and expands its scope to examine the effect of big money on journalism at large in America.
That freezing effect on press freedom feels like a new concern and a ripe topic for a documentary. Even though most working journalists have been worried about various threats to the free press since 9/11 — a fear that carried through the Obama administration, which was pretty restrictive toward the press — President Donald Trump’s open warfare on reporters has raised the warning bell volume to full blast.
And so while Knappenberger probably started out wanting to dig into the particulars of a confusing court case — albeit one with serious implications — dramatic shifts in political rhetoric, combined with a new administration that has openly declared war on the press, ultimately led him to create something much more full-throated. Rather than merely chronicle the fallout of a strange but fairly isolated lawsuit, Nobody Speak is a full-scale cautionary tale that starts out as a quasi-thriller about the media’s treatment of public figures and their private lives, and ends by forecasting a dystopian nightmare.
Nobody Speak starts out by focusing on Gawker and Hulk Hogan, but turns into something else
As a documentary, Nobody Speak is conventional, aiming more to inform and convince its audience of the assault on journalism in American than be cinematically innovative. The movie competently builds each chunk of its tale — beginning with Hulk Hogan's sex tape lawsuit against Gawker Media, which Hogan won in 2016 — by presenting both interviews and news footage and having the participants in its events, as well as the journalists who wrote about them, recount their memories.
But there’s a sort of twist in the middle of the film that casts new light on everything that came before, and that gives Nobody Speak the feel of a thriller — one built on very recent history. It’s unlikely that anyone who watches the film won’t have at least a vague memory of the strange court case that ultimately brought down the bad kid of online journalism, Gawker. But Nobody Speak carefully dissects that story, bringing in former employees (including Gawker founder Nick Denton) and lawyers from the case, so that it makes more sense to those who wouldn’t have grasped its significance at the time.
Or at least so that it makes some sense. The battle between Hulk Hogan and Gawker over the site’s publication of the wrestling star’s sex tapes takes some odd twists and turns: For one, the prosecution dropped some of its charges midway through the case for initially mystifying reasons that turned out to make sense once the participation of tech mogul Peter Thiel came to light.
After the trial, it was revealed that the prosecution had been bankrolled by Thiel, probably as an act of revenge for a story that Gawker published about him several years prior. And the trial’s eventual outcome, after Hogan was awarded $115 million in compensatory damages, was that Gawker went bankrupt and shut down — leaving even those observers who hated Gawker uncomfortable with the implications of living in a world where people with deep pockets and a grudge could take out media outlets for personal reasons.
Nobody Speak builds a damning, convincing case that journalism needs protecting
Nobody Speaks covers the Gawker trial in so much detail (and it’s necessary, giving the complexity of the case) that Thiel doesn’t even become a player until halfway through the film. Thiel's involvement is no longer the complete and total shocker it was when it was first discovered — anyone who followed the story in real time know it’s coming — but once he arrives, the movie shifts from a bizarre courtroom story to an ominous, and very convincing, demonstration of the threat that big money tied to big egos poses to press freedom in America.
One of the film’s major comparison points is the casino magnate and big-time GOP donor Sheldon Adelson’s secretive late 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. That purchase is carefully fleshed out in Nobody Speak by the journalists who formerly worked for the Review-Journal and uncovered the story of their paper’s new owner. They believed the acquisition to be at least partly motivated by Adelson’s grudge against one of its columnists — a parallel to Thiel’s involvement in the Gawker case.
Coupled with accounts of the ideas that people like Thiel and Adelson subscribe to — like the idea that it’s fine to throw around their wealth to take down media they don’t like — and the powerful company they keep, Nobody Speaks hurtles toward its conclusion: that the freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment is fragile, and facing one of its greatest tests to date.
Certainly, Nobody Speaks has its own axe to grind. The documentary also briefly mentions Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s 2013 purchase of the Washington Post — which by many accounts has been beneficial to the paper — but glosses past it, leaving the whole argument about the danger of business moguls owning or influencing media outlets feeling a tad lopsided. But it’s still a compelling one, and impossible for people who are paying even casual attention to the current media landscape to contest.
And of course, it’s 2017, which means there’s no escaping the looming shadow cast by President Trump’s pathological love-hate relationship with the press, fostered over decades of trying (with plenty of success) to get New York City’s tabloids to pay attention to him. Given that Nobody Speak premiered at the Sundance Film Festival just days after Trump’s inauguration, but includes footage of Sean Spicer’s famous assertions about the size of the crowd at that event, it seems the film has been recut and expanded a bit since its festival premiere. (The original subtitle was more specific: Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and Trials of a Free Press.)
You get the uneasy feeling, watching it, that a new cut of the film could happen every week this year. In fact, its conclusion — which explores the difficult and risky profession of journalism that tips over into valorization, with journalists extolling the calling they feel to their job to a degree that might not play well to the average non-journalist — feels almost like it belongs to a different movie, and may wind up weakening the film overall.
In Trump’s America, most people watching Netflix already have their minds made up about journalists — they may trust them, or they may think they’re the scum of the earth. Nobody Speak is a stirring argument that could sway some of the undecided viewers. But if filmmakers want to make a case about the free press in America — taking the Bezoses of the world into account along with the Thiels — then alongside films like Nobody Speak, we need a strong re-examination of whether, and how, corporate-driven journalism can be ethical and still stay afloat.
Nobody Speaks premieres on Netflix on June 23.