Overview: The 2016 Gawker trial gets top billing, but this documentary also looks at its broader implications for the free press. 2017; Netflix; Not Rated; 102 minutes.
“Bullies always act the same”: I didn’t come into this story impartial. I was a longtime reader of Gawker and on the day its office finally closed, I was getting a haircut across the street. I saw Nick Denton and some guys in suits gathered around on the sidewalk clearly having a moment, and while interrupting seemed borderline embarrassing and definitely rude, I felt like I needed to say something. I came up with “Uh, thanks for fighting the good fight” and got some confused head nods in return as I hustled out of there. That was the best I could come up with because the truth was that I never really understood what was happening while the case was going on. I assumed Hulk Hogan could never win the suit that claimed Gawker’s publication of a sex tape he appeared in (and boasted about) was as detrimental as he claimed, so I never paid much attention. But Hogan did win, mightily, with the resulting $140 million dollar judgement bankrupting the site and shutting it down for good. The story of that trial—with perspective provided from Denton and Editor-in-chief AJ Daulerio, along with other staffers, supporters and detractors—comprises the first half of Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. And it’s good; thoughtfully presented, if a bit news magazine-slick. Gradually, the documentary pulls back from its focus on Gawker, to instead look at other cases of journalists taking a stand and the broader implications of what we mean we talk about a free press. So that’s how you get from a cuckolded Bubba the Love Sponge to invoking the Bill of Rights accompanied by swelling orchestral background music in just under two hours.
Testing the Boundaries: From Gawker, Nobody Speak moves onto the story of traditional media and the unique struggles it’s facing as the industry evolves. In late 2015, the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was told that their newspaper had been sold. That’s not exactly unusual in the tenuous environment most print media now finds itself, but what was peculiar was that the staff had no idea who its new bosses were. Management was either unwilling or unable to tell them, so its reporters decided to find out for themselves. This unmasking and its aftermath ratchets up the pace of the documentary and the sense of urgency recalls the similar thrills of Spotlight or All the President’s Men. It’s really the best of what journalism can be. But then the film abruptly hits the same impasse we all did in 2016—Donald Trump. We’re shown a montage of the now-President behaving badly—particularly at the expense of journalists against whom he repeatedly riles his massive campaign audiences. It’s truly scary stuff. And I don’t know about you, but these moments were kind of like sharing a meal with someone that gives you both food poisoning but you keep having to hear that person recount the story over and over to listeners for dramatic effect. You know. You were there. It was awful. Did the filmmakers know Trump was going to close out their story? I don’t think so, and so the final third feels a bit slapdash. It’s obviously relevant to both the film and to the country, so its addition wouldn’t prevent me from recommending an otherwise solid film, but is it necessary? I’m not so sure.
Yes, and: Frustratingly much of this film feels a bit like what the travel companies call a cruise to nowhere; not enough time to actually arrive at a destination, but your trip spent making a circuit to get back to where you started is still pretty enjoyable. I agree that journalists are often heroic and that media should not have to kowtow to the fragile egos of the wealthy (…but...”) is usually how the next part goes in a documentary, but there’s little philosophical pushback here. I think that’s partly a function of how the story is presented, and also largely a result of my sharing the opinions of the filmmakers. Believe in free speech? Support a free press? You’ll enjoy watching this film. Will you learn anything about journalism or yourself that you didn’t already know? I doubt it.
Overall: Essentially Nobody Speak is three stories: Gawker, Las Vegas, and Trump. All could have been feature length on their own so their inclusion, though individually compelling, means this story can only run so deep. That said, I appreciate that the film asks us to test our own free speech boundaries. I just wish they’d given me some tougher questions.
Featured Image: Netflix