It came out of the fictionalized mouth of an unrelated figure 20 years early, but the most succinct summary of the Gawker/Hulk Hogan case may well’ve been this line from Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt: “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it’ll protect all of you. Because I’m the worst.” The noted 1A attorney Floyd Abrams puts it a bit more eloquently in Brian Knappenberg’s charged and powerful new documentary, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (which streams on Netflix and hits theaters today): When it comes to the freedom of the press, “We don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible… That’s not the standard we use in deciding what’s protected and what’s not.”
Bollea v. Gawker is a story that, on the surface, must’ve seemed catnip to this documentarian (as it was to the news media as it happened): it’s got a celebrity wrestler, a shock jock, a sex tape, and a rabble-rousing website, all fighting it out in a Florida courtroom. (I’ve got bingo, how’s about you?) Nobody Speak begins as a fairly straight-forward chronicle of the trial, delving into the details of the case – in which wrestler Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, sued the website Gawker for a 2012 post that included excerpts from a sex tape he says was shot and distributed without his knowledge – and lining up all of is players. But even these aren’t simple propositions; there is, for example, the question of Gawker’s tone and standards, and the complexities of an organization that engaged in real journalism, but more often orchestrated the spread of base gossip.
Yet there was always something a little off about the case, and director Knappenberger (The Internet’s Own Boy) revels in the sleazy characters and peculiarities therein: Hogan’s weird testimony, which attempted to draw blurry lines between person, persona, and “character”; the strand of another, more incendiary Hogan tape, which included racist and homophobic slurs, and how it fit into the leak of this one; and the specter of an unseen hand that seemed to be financing Hogan’s case, and making decisions to alternate ends.
It’s the kind of documentary that gets better the deeper it goes into the weeds, the more it focuses on the intricacies and details. It goes so deep, in fact, that there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch – it feels like the courtroom chronicle is going to be the whole movie. But just as there was more to the trial, there is more to the film, first in the form of Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who revealed himself as the secret financier of Bollea’s suit, and, when the case’s judgment ended the site, its most satisfied beneficiary (he would call it “the greatest philanthropic thing I’ve ever done”). But Knappenberger casts a hard light on Thiel’s strongman-libertarian worldview, and notes how, as Abrams puts it, he managed to “legitimize” the notion of putting unpopular speech out of business. Wherever you land on what Gawker did, and who they were in general, the implications of that precedent are chilling.
But the film most effectively rebuts the pervasive “Gawker deserved it” argument with its cleverest structural flourish – by turning to another, initially disconnected story, of the sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the kind of (ironically enough) old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting it took its staff to unmask the buyer as casino magnate and GOP ATM machine Sheldon Adelson. The publication of those findings, and the atmosphere at the paper in their wake, ended up emptying out the newsroom, and that’s where the connection, brilliantly, sticks — as opposed to the gossips at Gawker, these are the kind of “real,” respectable journalists that rich people with an eye on media manipulation can wipe out, and easily.
And that’s the shaky present that Nobody Speak dumps us into. It works, and well, as entertainment – fast-paced and twist-filled, like a good non-fiction yarn. But it’s also a valuable, informative, and urgent movie, placing the case within the virulent anti-media rhetoric of the Trump campaign and administration, connecting Hogan to Trump (himself a frequent guest star on wrestling shows), reminding us that Thiel was an onstage speaker at the convention that nominated a man who has proudly stated his desire to “open up the libel laws,” and who says the media is “among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever known.” Knappenberger makes the lines between these elements crystal clear before charging forth with a call to arms in this terrifying era, invoking the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and Murrow, underscoring the notion that a free press is “part of the bedrock of democracy.”
When the film premiered at Sundance last January, on the weekend of Trump’s inauguration, that ceremony had been edited in at the eleventh hour. In the months since, the president has generated more fodder for the film, which was added accordingly: the “controversy” over the size of his inauguration crowds, the baffling claim that news organizations don’t cover terrorism, his tweet deeming the fourth estate an “enemy of the people,” the notorious branding of his White House’s version of reality as “alternate facts.” Frankly, I can’t imagine the difficulty of trying to actually finish a film that is, by its conclusion, about a story that we’re living in the midst of. It feels like a movie that could be updated or recut weekly. Hell, daily.
“Nobody Speak” is now streaming on Netflix and opens today in limited release.