The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press takes one of recent history’s more outlandish trials and treats it as a disturbing harbinger of what might be to come. The stance that director Brian Knappenberger takes on the subject is there in the title: in the film’s estimation, the case was as much about an assault on the First Amendment as a lawsuit between a sordid tabloid and a disgraced pro wrestling legend. But it’s a measure of what Nobody Speak accomplishes in its comprehensive overview of the case and its aftermath that it captures the fervor so many felt around it. It hardly sidesteps the guilt of any parties involved, but it’s less a chronicle of the Hogan-Gawker lawsuits after a while than an indictment of celebrity culture, journalism in the digital era, and the increasingly hazardous popularity of anti-media sentiment.
To be clear, this all started with Gawker and Hogan, or rather, Terry Bollea. The distinction became integral to the lawsuits that Bollea filed against Gawker Media in 2013, after the flagship site decided to run an edited two-minute excerpt from a half-hour sex tape involving Bollea and Heather Clem, the wife of radio shock jock Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem. (The irony of a major American court case centering around a man named Bubba the Love Sponge rings loudly throughout the film’s early scenes.) Gawker founder Nick Denton and former editor-in-chief AJ Daulerio argued that Hogan, as a major celebrity, was a public figure whose private indiscretions were newsworthy, while Bollea/Hogan argued for the unnecessary violation of his privacy.
Knappenberger also directed The Internet’s Own Boy, about the tragic prosecution of hacker Aaron Swartz, and Nobody Speak offers a similar indictment of what abused power looks like in the modern era. The trial was a circus independent of the equally circus-like incident that spawned it; Dalerio, in a fit of arrogant ignorance, cracked wise about “the line” for a news-worthy sex tape involving someone four years of age or younger in his deposition, a decision that came back to haunt him when it was attacked during the trial and became its own news. Bollea was famously compelled to suggest that the penis of the Hulk Hogan character was larger than Bollea’s own, under oath. Nobody Speak uses one of America’s more unseemly trials in recent years as a reflection of what American media has become, and the battlegrounds on which issues of constitutional right now have to be fought out.
Its approach to Gawker is appropriately unsentimental throughout. Nobody Speak takes no shortage of pains in considering Gawker’s tacky, often combative subject matter, and the way in which it built a media empire out of unearthing dirty laundry and disseminating it for the public with little more motive than to take shots at ivory towers. That ethos is best found in Denton’s interviews, which give the impression of a man whose martyr complex is at once smugly obnoxious and lightly valid. Denton admits that “I wanted to write true things about bad people,” and it’s a reminder that Gawker’s chief function was always an assault on the American cult of celebrity. (Daulerio, for his numerous errors in judgment, emerges as a more sympathetic figure, especially when the film opens on him musing over a $230 million temporary lien on his personal bank accounts.) However, the film takes a longer view of Gawker, allowing for its role in the revival of Bill Cosby’s indiscretions and Tom Cruise’s unsettling Scientology recruitment video, even as it equally muses on how often Gawker got into mudslinging just for the snarky thrill of it.
The key to Nobody Speak emerges in the candid interviews, which reveal how unnecessary the entire case probably was at the start, and how necessary it became. Though Hogan is seen only in archival footage, many of the chief parties involved paint a picture of a trial that became bigger than itself. Hogan’s lawyer offers a reminder of how the trial could have been avoided if Gawker would have simply honored the initial cease-and-desist, but Denton maintains that he was in the right. To Denton and some of the other ex-editors interviewed throughout, the issue wasn’t necessarily the sex tape after a time. It was a powerful figure declaring what news can and can’t be reported about himself. And while there’s absolutely an argument to be made about how “powerful” can and should be interpreted in this instance, Denton saw the case as an attempt to silence the free press, even a free press as dirty as Gawker sometimes was, and saw that as something to be fought against.
From there, Nobody Speak expands into more ambitious territory. After the case is resolved, and the “judgment on steroids” was levied against Gawker in Hogan’s favor, the film starts to interrogate the grander conspiracy around the case. Its main focus in the back half is Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel’s involvement, and this is likely where Nobody Speak will divide audiences most. Its arguments connecting the carnivalesque subject matter and nature of the trial make the inevitable jump to Donald Trump (and his WWE involvement, as it were) before long, and Thiel by proxy as one of the new President’s close advisors. It’s an effective if clearly biased summary of Thiel’s more extreme views about the ideally unlimited rights of private citizens (including Randian island colonies of soverign billionaires free from bureaucracy and taxes), and Knappenberger’s film makes the case for the Gawker trial as being dangerous not because of what Gawker did, but because of the precedent it sets for an individual to wage war against a media outlet as Thiel did by funding Hogan’s lawsuit in secret, especially one who had a personal vendetta against that outlet; Thiel was publicly outed as a homosexual by Gawker in a 2007 article.
Knappenberger makes a passionate case, though an argument that he’s preaching to the choir could certainly be made throughout. Though Denton comes off as delusional about his own errors (and frankly, as something of a prick), there’s truth to the film’s case that there’s an ugly precedent in an affluent individual being able to smother a dissenting or undesirable voice, regardless of whether or not Gawker set itself up to fall in the first place. Denton declares that he’s on the verge of personal bankruptcy (that massive court ruling included an eight-figure demand of Denton himself), and Nobody Speak offers an eerie vision of how easily a media giant can be toppled under the pressure of a “cinematically vindictive and conspiratorial” figure like Thiel. It’s a clearly slanted take, but one largely rooted in fact just the same.
In this same vein, the film takes a lengthy detour to investigate the story of Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who bought out the Las Vegas Review-Journal, an outlet known for being critical of his practices. Adelson, who began as a power player in Vegas, eventually became an influential shadow voice within the modern GOP, a number of recent Republican candidates (including President Trump) currying his favor and influence. And in the case of the Review-Journal, Adelson’s buyout is viewed as an attack on an unbiased media, and indicative of a culture that increasingly favors targeted news over objective truth. It’s full of small horror stories, from veteran journalists being culled to Adelson offering a writer $100,000 for his daughter’s chemotherapy in exchange for the recanting of an article critical of Adelson’s corrupt practices. And while the connections Knappenberger draws between private and government corruption are sometimes belabored, they’re also accurate, and a stark reminder of the increasing popularity of “bought” news.
Nobody Speak concludes with something of a call to arms, particularly in the wake of President Trump’s election and his public hostility toward media outlets unfriendly to his message. It’s an overview that won’t change any opinions, in most cases, and might be best taken as an overview of modern media’s tensest dialogues of the moment. But it also makes an effective, and chilling, case for the endangerment of the free press, with Gawker as an example of how quickly a news outlet can be decimated. In the current climate, when even the most venerable news organizations are increasingly forced to battle for clicks and advertising revenue, all it takes is one affluent party to eliminate the opposition. In a world now singing the praises of “alternative facts,” that’s something worth being terrified about.