Sometimes documentaries seek to change the landscapes they are released into. For director Brian Knappenberger, the election of President Donald Trump was a landmark moment. His most recent film, “Nobody Speak,” was originally conceived as a documentary about the salacious website Gawker. Instead, it became a critical moment in how we discuss free speech and the press. Knappenberger has lofty goals that seek to sound the alarm as the freedom of the press seems to be held hostage. However, Knappenberger falls short in delivering that goal, falling victim to the distraction that is Donald Trump.
“Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press” follows the tabloid case of Bollea v. Gawker, or Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker. The idea of the trial was simple in its premise. Should Gawker, a website hellbent on reporting celebrity gossip and “news” be allowed to post a sex tape of a wrestler like Hulk Hogan? Was Hogan’s celebrity in its own right, a rationale for the tape to be considered news? Regardless of what your personal opinions are toward Gawker, the case quickly became a referendum on 1st amendment speech within the digital age. To the surprise of many, Bollea, a.k.a. Hogan won the case and $140 million in damages.
If that were the full story, the case would still make for a fascinating case study. However, it was later discovered that Silicon Valley magnate Peter Thiel was the man behind the curtain funding the lawsuit. Rather than let it be exposed quietly, Thiel made his own news by openly boasting about his role in the suit and the fact that it brought down a media entity he saw as inessential. This is where Knappenberger’s documentary really begins to take off. Knappenberger’s case study quickly spirals into a much larger question: should billionaires be able to destroy the press because they release information the billionaire would rather keep secret.
It’s a fair question and one that is proven worthy of examination. The Trump presidency is on display in full force in the film and seems to be Knappenberger’s greatest focus. That is not entirely true though, as the most compelling case comes from the “Spotlight” style reporting of the Las Vegas-Review. The newspaper was bought out by a billionaire’s family, and through true journalism and investigative reporting, the press shone a flashlight on the truth. It’s an incredibly important story and should be one of the breadcrumbs toward the future that Knappenberger believes we are heading for.
What ultimately holds up the documentary from being an all-timer is that is can never quite fulfill its mission to make the 1st amendment seem as under fire as it may be in today’s age. While Hogan is a clear path into the issues that Knappenberger brings to light, he may be too tight in his vision. Sprawling documentaries like “13th” or “Bowling for Columbine” have been able to show systemic issues that are far ranging beyond the initial scope of the documentary. Here, the close-up on Thiel, Trump, and Hogan detracts from the film. The most interesting information brought to light is Las Vegas-Review story, but it is relegated to the background.
This sets up a vital problem for the film. If the 1st amendment is under attack, where is the evidence? There are more examples on the table, but instead, Knappenberger falls on only 3 major topics: the Las Vegas-Review, Thiel, and Trump. There should be more support for this argument, and we are privy to see it even within this film. If there’s a focus on Trump, why not make the blacklisting of Buzzfeed and the Washington Post a bigger deal? Why not focus in on the campaigns of disinformation from fake news and other sources? Where is the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? There is something much larger and more systemic at play, yet the focus on Thiel and Trump is continuously played out in variations.
None of this is inherently bad for the film but weakens it from what could have been a massive and sprawling examination of the loss of our single most important right as Americans to instead a look at a president that the country is all too acquainted with. The release date does not help the film, as the message feels hackneyed only 5 months into the Trump administration. With news breaking every day on this subject, Knappenberger is at a natural disadvantage.
Furthermore, the documentary ignores ways in which the press has struck back. Indivisible and Crooked Media found ways to break into the public consciousness through new media. Many are exercising the right to free speech more than ever before. Town Halls have been crashed, rallies are everywhere, and women held the largest single day protest in history. While the future is imperfect, there is hope. “Nobody Speak” doesn’t look for this until late in the game.
All of this said, “Nobody Speak” is a riveting documentary. It will make you care about the Gawker case in ways you may never have thought possible. This may prove to be one of the most important cases of the century. What Knappenberger has created is a must-watch film, yet it is not the only of note about the Trump presidency. It’s only June, and already two major films have been delivered about our current commander and chief. Don’t be surprised if more are on the way.