Well, let me tell you something, brother: Hulk Hogan always goes over in the end. The result of last year’s tabloid-friendly trial between Hogan (real name Terry Bollea, as Jenny Slate kindly reminded us in “Obvious Child”) and Gawker may have been less surprising to pro-wrestling fans than it was to everyone else, but its long-term impact will likely be even more consequential than the Hulkster body-slamming Andre the Giant in front of 93,000 screaming Hulkamaniacs.
“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” isn’t as indulgent with wrestling references as that last paragraph, which is probably to its credit. Brian Knappenberger’s documentary is compelling and slickly produced in the way that timely Sundance documentaries often are, with no shortage of talking heads and trial footage assuring us that there’s nothing normal about the new normal in which we all find ourselves. Also like a lot of similar movies, the subject itself is more engaging than the filmmaking.
The plaintiff in the trial was a lifelong showman whose fame and fortune are a direct result of his ability work an audience, whether it be in an open-air arena or an intimate courtroom; one of the defendants made a massively ill-advised joke about child sex tapes. To say that Hogan acquitted himself well and his opponent did not would be an understatement.
But however self-inflicted Gawker’s wounds may have been — they chose a questionable hill to die on, and die they did — the implications of that trial are troubling, to say the least. What other casualties might follow suit in the future? This concern is put best by a First Amendment attorney interviewed here: “The reason to save Gawker is not because Gawker was worth saving,” he says. “The reason to save it is that we don’t pick and choose what sort of publications are permissible, because once we do, it empowers the government to limit speech in a way that ought to be impermissible.”
The reading of the verdict and $140 million in damages comes halfway through the film, and it’s then that “Nobody Speak” pivots to its ultimate focus: Peter Thiel and other billionaires who seek to muzzle the press. Lawyers are expensive, and litigants with deep war chests tend to win. Knappenberger presents his case with all the passion of a trial lawyer who knows that his case be unwinnable but presses on anyway.
It was Thiel who financed Hogan’s lawsuit and considered doing so a philanthropic act. He’d been outed by Gawker nearly a decade earlier. The potential danger is obvious: Other millionaires and billionaires could follow suit and use their vast financial resources to sue journalistic outlets they don’t like as a means of score-settling.
Knappenberger links this to Donald Trump’s promise to “open up libel laws” and his rabid supporters’ violent threats toward journalists at rallies, not least because Thiel was an early supporter of then-candidate Trump. These conclusions are persuasive, frightening and (one hopes) a little alarmist — surging background music and other theatrics have a tendency to detract from the film’s arguments rather than enhancing it. A film about the vital importance of speaking truth to power needn’t be so concerned with dressing up its own frightful truths, but “Nobody Speak” still compels as an opening statement on journalism’s dubious future.
“Nobody Speak” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s available to stream on Netflix as of June 23.