'Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A stimulating and valuable but structurally challenged look at the danger the super-rich pose to a free press.

Documentarian Brian Knappenberger looks at the overall threats to journalism buried within the circuslike Hulk Hogan/Gawker showdown.

Sometime between the publication of the Sundance Film Festival catalog and its premiere on Tuesday, Brian Knappenberger's new documentary Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press dropped the middle part of its title, added some ominous footage of Donald Trump's inauguration and tried to cement its status as a broader look at the Fourth Estate's jeopardy in a plutocrat-friendly America. Knappenberger, who in earlier docs We Are Legion and The Internet's Own Boy has been able to wrangle subjects with vast ramifications into satisfying feature-length productions, has somewhat less success here, in a film whose ungainly structure may owe to the unforeseen election of a president so unfriendly to the media. Nevertheless, the issues it addresses are of massive importance, and when Netflix makes the doc available later this year, even those with no interest in the wrestling star's sex life will find it eye-opening.

The battle between Gawker and Hogan (aka Terrence Gene Bollea) is one with nary a sympathetic character. Nick Denton, the easy-to-dislike Gawker publisher who built an empire in part on bitchy insults and invasions of privacy (the site's "Gawker Stalker" feature is not mentioned here, nor are the company's self-serving defenses of it), sits on one side; Hogan, an egomaniac complaining about invasion of privacy after starring on a reality show and bragging about his sex life, sits on the other. The whole thing is sordid, but those of us who ignored it as it happened should probably reconsider: As journalists and First Amendment scholars convincingly argue here, this is "one of the most important First Amendment cases in history."

That's in part because, in between its smug put-downs, Gawker sometimes broke serious and important news. It's partly because things get scary when legal questions arise about what constitutes journalism, and therefore merits Constitutional protection. And it's partly because this case was less about a wrestler's sex life than about a billionaire (an avid Trump supporter, incidentally) who realized he could kill a media entity he didn't like by outspending it in the courts.

Nobody Speak does a fine job of telling how Silicon Valley moneyman Peter Thiel bankrolled this case, laying out his motives and seeing the verdict's impact on Gawker's employees. (Knappenberger is kinder to the latter group than many would be, taking their anger-the-powerful defenses at face value.) Then, just as he's beginning to talk about Charles Harder, a Beverly Hills lawyer specializing in the defense of celebrities' public images, his film abruptly leaps out into the desert of Nevada.

A long episode chronicles the sad fate of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, whose staff was shocked in 2015 to find that Sheldon Adelson, a gaming magnate who had often been a target of their reporting, had bought the paper, seemingly as a way to silence stories he didn't want published. This is a frightening narrative that, unlike the other, boasts heroes — reporters who risked their careers to stand up for journalistic principles. But while it fits the bigger goals of this film, it is stuck uncomfortably into the middle of the Hogan/Thiel/Gawker narrative, suggesting that Nobody Speak might work better as a miniseries than a feature. God knows there are enough current threats to journalism to fill several more hours of frightening, enraging, protest-inspiring docs.

Production companies: Luminant Media, SubLA
Distributor: Netflix
Director-screenwriter: Brian Knappenberger
Producers: Brian Knappenberger, Femke Wolting, Korelan Matteson
Directors of photography: Scott Sinkler, Jason Blalock
Editor: Andy McAllister
Composer: Garron Chang
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

93 minutes