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.