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« Beauty Break: Steve Carell | Main | Are You Binging On? »
Tuesday
Jul042017

Doc Corner: 'Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press'

Get ready to hear the words “Bubba the Love Sponge” way more than you ever thought possible. As somebody who isn’t especially knowledgeable about Z-grade American radio celebrities, this came as quite a shock to me, but I guess that is keeping in theme with the film in general. This is a documentary that covers such a salacious and outright bizarre story that nothing should really shock. A film about serious issues that plays at times like an absurd comedy. A film that sadly reflects the gutter within which we live.

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press is the latest documentary by Brian Knapperberger. Like his last film, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which looked at the life of the late Reddit co-founder, this Netflix streaming doc examines a part of the online world that often goes unseen. Knapperberger’s demonstrates a weightier sense of confidence here, but like that earlier film, he has a keen ability in finding the central beating heart of a story that could easily confuse and confound audiences – whereas before it ones and zeroes, here it is legal jargon and the first amendment.

In Nobody Speak, as suggested by the subtitle, it is how the Hulk Hogan v Gawker lawsuit of 2015 wasn’t just one celebrity accusing a tabloid of posting content they didn’t like, but how it ultimately kicked the anti-press sentiment of the right into the mainstream. And did so to such a degree that now we appear to have half of the American population agreeing with a president who thinks he is justified to send memes into the world showing him punching and body-slamming the media.

That video in question happened just this past weekend and in some ways, Knapperberger’s film is undercut by its own topicality. By necessarily extrapolating the Hogan/Gawker case so well to the modern political climate, Nobody Speak comes off as already quite dated. Premiering just half a year ago at Sundance, the further developments in the right’s anti-press movement could easily fill another 95 minutes. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Peter Thiel is arguably what makes the film so prescient, and Knapperberger along with editor Andrew McAllister do some fun work in slowly teasing out his involvement as the puppet master behind the entire ridiculous affair. In this regard, they sidestep possible criticisms of this film preaching just to the choir as for the by the T**** appears, the hope is that some have already been taught a thing or two about what it means for the press to be free.

In fact, it’s almost a shame that the film’s points had to made in relation to a sex tape. Nobody Speak goes to lengths to defend the freedom of the press, as it rightly should, but considering the central thrust of the documentary’s narrative is whether Gawker had the ‘right’ to publish a sex tape made without one of the participants’ permission, it seems like a misstep on Knappenberger’s behalf to not consider the other side of the conversation. Talking heads are uniformly on the side of Gawker, as interviewees discuss not necessarily liking the content yet defending their ability to publish it, but I became intrigued as to the actual legal basis behind Hulk’s case that the film didn’t seem particularly interested in navigating. I imagine there will be a significant number of viewers of Nobody Speak who, as the credits roll, will actually not be on the side of the gossip rag.

In fact, despite being just a narrative detour, the film’s greater point is made more defiantly by an excursion to Las Vegas where the story of an independent newspaper purchased by a controversial billionaire. This segment, appearing late in the film, and its low-key journalistic heroes are probably deserving of a film all their own and highlights just what is at stake. It’s the sublime cushioned by the ridiculousness of Hogan and Gawker. Depending on how grotesque the public discourse of this topic becomes, Nobody Speak will probably come to be seen as just the calm before the storm, an important pivot point for America.

Release: Streaming now on Netflix worldwide.

Oscar Chances: I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the 15-wide longlist, but Netflix's problem these days with non-fiction content is that they have too much and so much of it is actually good so they have to pick their battles. They could easily see this one of their few true ponies of the season given the topicality.

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