One of the things I’ve had to contend with in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, as well as through the whole 2016 campaign, was justifying my outrage. I had to step back and ask myself, “Is this all really as bad as I think it is?” It’s been very easy for Republicans to now turn around and point the finger at liberals for being hypocrites. Everything they were panicking over eight years ago, now we’re losing our minds. It’s been an endless back and forth of hypocrisy and hysteria.
The Netflix documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” is a good barometer for that paranoia. It’s a movie that argues, quite convincingly, that recent events have set the wheels in motion for the richest individuals to silence speech and press they don’t like and to use money and power to influence the truth and the message in the media. Director Brian Knappenberger believes this is a direct attack on freedom of the press and the First Amendment.
So is he right, or is he cherry picking and stoking more hysteria? I’d like to approach this review from the perspective of someone who might genuinely be dismissive of it, the type of person who uses the phrase “the media” as a pejorative, the type of person who takes pleasure out of drinking liberal tears, or the type of person who wouldn’t bother watching a documentary like this in a million years, let alone exist in the same universe of logic to argue rationally about it. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The film’s focus is on Gawker and the trial between Gawker and wrestler Hulk Hogan that bankrupted the blog and outright made a media company go away forever. Knappenberger first sits down with Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker. His philosophy was to not be afraid to call out bad people for being assholes, and it’s easy to see this guy as an elitist, a person who fancies himself as an arbiter against assholes everywhere.
Then Knappenberger sits down with a blogger who writes about wrestling. This guy couldn’t be more of a cliché. He’s pale, slightly overweight, covered in acne and wearing dorky glasses, yet Knappenberger sits down with him in a boxing gym of all places. Meanwhile he goes on about Hulk Hogan and his legacy in popular culture. This is a guy who has dedicated his life to being an expert…on Hulk Hogan. And he writes about it online.
Gawker chose to publish a link to watch Hogan’s sex tape, and Terry Bollea, Hogan’s given name, sued Gawker for an invasion of privacy. Gawker argued that Hogan was a public figure, that this was particularly bizarre and newsworthy, and in turn a matter of public interest. And their first line of defense is that pimply blogger. Even if you like Gawker or agree with their reasoning, you may agree their case is not infallible.
But this is where “Nobody Speak” breaks away from the typical cultural arguments. This is where it rises above the left-right political discourse and reminds you this is not normal. “We did not save Gawker because they were worth saving,” one lawyer says in the film. Knappenberger doesn’t ignore legitimate media criticism, but he’s careful to still make the case that a legal threat such as this one is the real deal, and this is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
Knappenberger shifts focus to Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire, who was revealed as the secret financial backer behind the Gawker/Hogan trial. They explain his interest had nothing to do with the lurid, tabloid details of privacy and the sex tape of a wrestler. He was simply seeking revenge and interested in bankrupting Gawker so they would vanish, so that they could not shine a light on him or anyone else again.
The film frames Thiel as “cinematically vindictive” with all the power of a super villain. “Nobody Speak” invokes conspiracy, extortion and morally questionable people pulling the strings as though the film were a caper. And all this exists on the tenuous line between great drama, histrionics, or even Alex Jones-grade paranoia.
But “Nobody Speak” is grounded in reality and doesn’t strain to be authentic and logical. After the Gawker case, it looks at an example of how Sheldon Adelson covertly acquired a Las Vegas newspaper that previously did digging into his finances. He’s not drawing a line to suggest a national conspiracy, but he’s explaining how both the Gawker case and Adelson’s purchase have set a dangerous precedent for what can and can’t be published freely.
When I first saw “Nobody Speak,” I saw it as part of a panel discussion between a group of lawyers and the director Knappenberger. They challenged him and made the case that there are more layers and complications to the First Amendment argument than even he or his film realized. But that’s not to say that “Nobody Speak” isn’t convincing or doesn’t accurately present both sides. On the contrary. Even if the legal and Constitutional arguments haven’t been settled, it makes a compelling cultural argument against rich people simply using their money to influence the press, especially to do so in secret, away from the public eye.
I personally think that’s a real problem worth addressing, a real worry that seems to be slipping further away within this current administration. If anyone from the other side of the aisle did care to see this film, it’s powerful enough to suggest there is a discussion to be had here. “Nobody Speak” must be special if it can do that.
3 ½ stars