Full disclosure: I’ve never watched a sex tape. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid even catching a fleeting glimpse of the kinds of salacious DIY videos that helped make the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian famous.
I’m not much of a wrestling fan either, so when Hulk Hogan sued the website Gawker for releasing images of him having sex with the wife of a close friend, I didn’t pay much attention. The documentary “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press” makes a persuasive case for why I should have paid more attention.
Directed by Brian Knappenberger, this absorbing if ungainly film meticulously lays out the facts of Hogan’s case, which maintained that Gawker’s release of the tape violated the privacy not of Hogan — a public, largely fictional character known for bragging about his sexual prowess — but of Terry Bollea, the real-life man behind the spray tan and spandex singlets. Hogan’s case seems preposterously thin, until a shrewd bit of legal wrangling puts Gawker’s fortunes in genuine danger. There seems to be more to the situation than meets the eye.
What comes to light is that Hogan’s case was being bankrolled by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who had nursed a long-simmering grudge against Gawker and pounced on the chance to sue the site and its founder, Nick Denton, for every penny they had. As media-news junkies everywhere now know, Gawker is out of business thanks to Thiel’s crusade; “Nobody Speak,” which played last weekend at AFI Docs, suggests that his lawsuit is the warning shot across the bow of a free press increasingly under fire from partisan millionaires and, in what looks like hurriedly added footage, our own president.
Although Knappenberger makes a convincing argument for alarm, interviewing such sage observers as NPR’s David Folkenflik and the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan, he’s less probing when it comes to Gawker’s less savory endeavors. The site broke authentic news during its run, but it trafficked in tawdry, petty takedowns that deserve to be questioned more vigorously in the context of informing an engaged citizenry. “Nobody Speak” shifts abruptly midway through to focus on the far more clear-cut fight between the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and casino magnate and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who bought the paper in 2015 and promptly fired a journalist who had been critical of his business dealings.
While the news is awash in daily stories about the Left killing free speech on college campuses, “Nobody Speak” provides an unsettling reminder that another form of censorship and distortion is occurring right under our noses, our attention being misdirected by sound, fury and tabloid-worthy showmanship while oligarchs and autocrats sow mistrust in media they either want to destroy or control for their own purposes. As the film makes clear, the threat is particularly dire for news outlets in small and midsize cities where they’re the only source of accountability to local political and corporate power.
Knappenberger’s film might make that case awkwardly at times, in an overlong film that bears the signs of being quickly re-edited after the 2016 election. (It was finished before the Trump White House made its press briefings more rare, less transparent and must-see exercises in stonewalling.) But formal quibbles pale in comparison to the content he’s illuminating. “Nobody Speak” is a chilling, essential primer in how we got here and where we’re going if bread and circuses continue to win the news cycle. Whether as consumers, citizens or click-addicted spectators, that’s on us.
Nobody Speak (95 minutes) is available on Netflix. It contains sexual material and some profanity.