Brian Knappenberger’s latest documentary involving the Internet is his most concerning yet also his least satisfying.
Freedom of the press is a hot topic right now, particularly as the White House is forbidding cameras at press briefings yet permitting Fox News exclusive one-on-ones with Sean Spicer. That makes Brian Knappenberger’s Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, now on Netflix, seem like an essential documentary. The film begins with focus on Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit that brought down Gawker Media. Then it builds outward to address the apparent suppression of both independent and mainstream media by billionaires, ultimately concentrating on the President’s war against the press. It is timely and easy to follow, and fans of the First Amendment and haters of the Trump Administration will love it unconditionally.
Knappenberger is a master of making complicated internet subject matter and its issues easily digestible and revelatory. With We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, he connects dots between lolcats and the Arab Spring while tracing the history of the hacker group Anonymous. In The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, he turns an emotional biography of the late RSS and Reddit co-developer into a story about all of us who use the web. Nobody Speak involves a much more comprehensible situation, yet Knappenberger still breaks it down for easiest delivery. It’s not just digestible, it’s smooth enough to be sipped through a straw — everything is still consumed but in a more monotonous and passive manner.
Maybe it’s just such an apparent problem right now that it’s hard for the documentary to be enlightening. Important to communicate to viewers, yes; the film raises more awareness of something that affects us all. But much of what it has to say can be gleaned from the trailer or synopsis, and the film itself is never surprising, thought-provoking, or moving. Its chronicle of the Gawker case, which entailed Hogan suing the company over publication of part of a sex tape, is slow-to-the-point and repetitively visualized. Knappenberger follows that, discontinuously, with a specific look at casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Then, finally, comes the relatively up-to-date conclusion involving Trump.
Nobody Speak impressed fest-goers at Sundance in January for being so timely and immediate, even featuring footage of the inauguration that had occurred just days before the premiere. Months later, the subject matter is still pressing, yet it’s also merely an introduction to the issue. Hopefully those who watch it will be led to follow the story further. Knappenberger makes it easy to do so with Twitter, as he shares and dishes out more and more material on the issue on social media as if it were an extension of his doc. As a discussion starter, the film is effective, if not affecting. As a movie, it’s disappointing, particularly because we’ve seen Knappenberger can weave more intricate cultural histories into more substantial and satisfying works of journalistic entertainment.
I’m not one to usually harp on what could have been or should have been with films, but I do want to recognize another aspect of the Hogan vs. Gawker case that is particularly relevant to Present Trump and might have provided more of an additional layer to the film. As it is, it still offers more for the conversation afterward. On the stand during the trial, as seen in the doc, Hogan attempts to explain the distinction between Hulk Hogan the character and Hulk Hogan the real person (aka Terry Bollea), as a convenience for what he can get away with as the former and what he can excuse himself from as the latter. The White House has tried to make similar distinctions with regards to Trump’s social media comments but isn’t consistent on whether his tweets do or do not speak for the Trump Administration.
Nobody Speak does make a minor acknowledgement of the correlation, with Gawker publisher Nick Denton recognizing the defenses of Trump’s misogynistic comments in the infamous Access Hollywood tape as being the TV character Donald Trump, not the man. But it’s a very brief aside in the film, and I think it’s deserving of more exploration. The freedom of the press issue is a concrete concern with very definable reason to be alarmed. The confusion over actual people and their public personas as celebrities and reality TV characters isn’t as easy to come to a conclusion on or see the trouble in, but it’s surely a dangerous trend. It’s also the more fascinating if not more urgent matter of real vs. fake than the news and free press issue.
It’s clear that Nobody Speak is a doc that was ever changing during its making, and not just because its subtitle was once the more-focused “Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press.” It’s fitting that Field of Vision co-funded the feature since they’re mostly known for short, immediate journalistic documentaries and works that evolve and expand. The film isn’t exactly ephemeral nor does it seem an unfinished work in progress, but it does feel of the moment and so potentially won’t endure like Knappenberger’s other docs. But that could also just be the times we’re in right now, when impermanence and uncertainty are the norm, causing more and more nonfiction features to come off as fleeting.