The most memorable moment in Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a new documentary dropping on Netflix Friday, comes in the very first scene, when the former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio is shown explaining to the camera that there’s a hold on his personal bank account. For $230 million. It’s a moment that the director, Brian Knappenberger, uses to convey the scale of the imbalance he perceives between a scrappy but impoverished press and an army of shadowy billionaires with endless pockets and a yen to muzzle the media.
But it’s also a moment the movie could use more of: some behind-the-scenes insight into a case that was heavily dissected as it played out in 2016, after the former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for publishing a video showing him having sex. Knappenberger has assembled a thorough and comprehensive recap of Bollea v. Gawker, in which the media gossip site was bankrupted by a decision that many saw as a harbinger of doom for the First Amendment. But there’s not much his target audience won’t already be familiar with. And in the movie’s second half, when it changes direction to consider the manifold threats the media faces in 2017, it feels so much like hagiography that it’s sometimes hard to take it seriously.
Still, the cast of characters is the stuff documentarians dream of. On the one side is Hogan/Bollea, the living, breathing manifestation of Florida Man, who in 2006 engaged in sexual relations with the wife of a shock jock named Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and was unwittingly (or not) filmed in the process. On that same side: Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and connoisseur of litigation who’s also known for his offshore water cities and his “immortality projects.” Facing off against these two is Nick Denton, the Machiavellian Brit and ex-financial journalist who co-founded Gawker in 2002 with the goal of reporting the news journalists gossiped about amongst themselves but couldn’t print.
Knappenberger sets the scene in the tense climate of 2016, when Donald Trump was ascending in the polls while raging at the supposedly crooked media. (Nobody Speak, which debuted at Sundance in January, seems to have been tweaked after the election.) The movie painstakingly lays out the nuances of the case by interviewing esteemed media reporters and freelance wrestling experts alike. Bollea, once an American icon so influential he had his own line of multivitamins, sued Gawker after they published excerpts from a tape of him having sex with Heather Clem. Gawker’s lawyers argued that Bollea was a public figure who’d publicly bragged about his 10-inch penis. Bollea countered that there was a difference between Hulk Hogan and Terry Bollea, and that the former was a brash character engaged in “puffery,” while the latter was entitled to cuckold his friend in private.
Rather than revel in the tabloid-y drama, Nobody Speak allows people like NPR’s David Folkenflik and The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan to emphasize the stakes of the case. “We don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible because once we do, it allows the government to limit speech,” the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams explains. Knappenberger also interviews Gawker editors, who defend their coverage of “true stories about bad people.” There are numerous side-angles, like the question of whether Bollea was really trying to cover up his career-damaging use of racist slurs, and Daulerio’s now-notorious sarcastic comment in a deposition about the newsworthiness of sex tapes involving children.
But they all fade into the background once Thiel emerges. As the film explains, he donated $10 million to fund Hogan’s case against Gawker, intent on bringing down the site that had outed him back in 2007. And it’s at this point that Nobody Speaks shifts focus to the general threat wealthy and agenda-driven figures pose to a free press. Knappenberger spends significant time interviewing reporters at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who reported out the story that their own publication had been purchased by the billionaire Sheldon Adelson. If controversial figures can so easily silence negative press coverage by spending money, the film asks, what does this mean at a time where a notoriously thin-skinned plutocrat is the leader of the free world? It’s an interesting question, but the sudden shift in focus makes the movie feel a little patchworked together.
At this point, the soaring strings in the background signal the kind of theme music that usually accompanies a particularly rousing speech on The West Wing, and Knappenberger splices together an inspirational montage of reporters wearing flak jackets with talking-head quotes about their vital roles during this moment. It’s all at something of a remove from the focal point of Bollea v. Gawker, and it seems to signal a film that hasn’t considered the counterargument that journalism might also flourish when its key tenets are under threat. Yes, there are doubtless wealthy figures who’ve been inspired by Thiel’s nine-year revenge plot. And yes, public sentiment toward media institutions has soured. But the constant barrage of breaking news about the Trump administration, not to mention the very existence of documentaries like this one, indicates that “a sacred public trust of vital civic function” isn’t moribund just yet.