Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brian Knappenberger.
Written by: Brian Knappenberger.
The documentary Nobody Speak starts out as an examination of the bizarre legal case in which Terry Bollea aka Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for posting an excerpt of a sex tape featuring him and the wife of his best friend – a radio personality known as Bubba the Love Sponge. That case really should have been enough for one documentary to be about – but that doesn’t satisfy director Brian Knappenberger, who spins off into other stories in the back half of the documentary – like billionaire Sheldon Adelson buying a Las Vegas newspaper that was critical of him in order to control them, to Donald Trump and the rise of “Fake News”. Undeniably, there are connections between all of these cases – cases in which billionaires try to manipulate the press into giving them the coverage they want, and trying to actively shut down those who don’t – and yet because the film is only 95 minutes long, the film starts to feel more scattershot than it should. I couldn’t help but think of the excellent doc from a few years ago – Best of Enemies – about the infamous Vidal/Buckley debates during the 1968 Presidential campaigns, which in the last few minutes contains a montage about the unintended consequences those debates spawned. That was a smart, effective and efficient way of taking a smaller story and giving it larger relevance – Nobody Speak does essentially that for 45 minutes, and isn’t as effective. By the end, as the music soars, you’re watching a sermon.
That doesn’t mean that the film is bad – far from it – just that I wish the film had followed the crazy Terry Bollea vs. Gawker case throughout – because that case is bizarre enough to support it, and the case may well be stronger had they done that. By cramming that into 50 minutes or so, it kind of just hits the highlights, and doesn’t give as nuanced a view of anyone involved in the case as it should. For instance, Gawker was a journalistic cesspool, but the doc brushes by that quickly, in order to make Gawker into Free Speech heroes. I do believe Gawker had the right to publish what they did, and their right to freedom of speech should be upheld at all costs – because even if it is a cesspool, they still have those rights. By making them into heroes, the film makes things easier on the audience than it should be to side with Gawker – they were right, but saying so should make you feel a little dirty.
Knappenberger – who has made two other, rather laudatory docs, about the internet – We Are Legion about the hacker group Anonymous and The Internet’s Own Boy – about Aaron Swartz, another activist, hounded by the government until he committed suicide – doesn’t much work in shades of grey though – he likes things black and white morally speaking. And while here, there is clearly a right side and a wrong side, it would be nice to at least see what that other side was – from someone other than Bollea’s poorly touped lawyer.
Still, my problems with Nobody Speak aside, it is a fascinating movie about the slippery slope of journalistic integrity in America when billionaires can essentially control the media. Hogan’s suit against Gawker was funded by billionaire Peter Thiel, who apparently didn’t like previous stories they had done on him. Perhaps sensing that audiences may not like the Gawker people (one of whom did say that they only celebrity sex tape that wasn’t newsworthy would be if the celebrity was under 4 – and even if he was clearly being sarcastic, that doesn’t really help) Knappenberger switches focus to the Las Vegas Review Journal – a newspaper that was bought by another billionaire, although he tried to cover his tracks, and was only ousted by the dogged work by the reporters at the paper he had just acquired.
As with Knappenberger’s previous two films, I agree with a lot of what Knappenberger is saying in this film – and think that the connections are there, and they are important, and we do need to defend full, free journalism. I also wish that Knappenberger could impart that message without resorting to flattening everything into moral black and whites, and speechifying in the final act. There is a great doc to be made of this material – to be honest, there’s probably two or three great docs to be made of it. This one is merely ok.