The opening film of the SXSW Conference Film Festival this year was the documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which comes to Netflix later this year. What is described as and initially shot as a look at the involvement of wealthy individuals on the trial against Gawker Media and the purchase of a newspaper in Las Vegas starts quite small with some scandalous, but not too worrisome looks at isolated interests but begins to pull back to show the terrifying effect that powerful individuals can have on the freedom of the press. This, by no coincidence at all, comes just at the right time in the United States of America.
Initially, the film was made to highlight some of the absurdities that took place in an odd courtroom trial involving a suit against Gawker Media by former WWE megastar Hulk Hogan. The trial involves a sex tape and some quirky characters, and Hulk Hogan claiming that Terry Bollea, the star’s real name, and Hulk Hogan are two completely different people. It makes for an entertaining and funny look at some weird stuff, with a little bit of concern for the question of how far is too far to go in trying to fight back against negative media coverage, regardless of the content. Early on in the film, during the Hogan/Gawker bits, some seeds are sowed that would imply that this film is discussing something much larger than just a lawsuit that ended up bankrupting a media company. There are journalist talking about how important they are and coming across as if they are doing the most important work in the country.
Now, while it is clear that they believe this to be true, at this early stage in the film, it is not clear why they are being so upfront about this position. As the audience is deftly moved from the Gawker trial to the swift and stealthy purchase of a famous Las Vegas newspaper, where it is better shown how journalism and journalistic pursuits can really open up some truth about things that powerful people want to keep under wraps, the film’s real thesis begins to show through and that defensive stance from the journalists interviewed becomes much clearer. The film argues that freedom of the press and particularly the danger of very wealthy and powerful individuals disagreeing with the press and using their weight to suppress, bully, or endanger journalism are issues to which we desperately need to paid attention.
While the film does a great job of maneuvering between its evidence for its claim and finding time to have moments of comedy, absurdity, and strong individual heroics, it really excels at serving as a warning to the viewer that just because somebody with a ton of money and power doesn’t like something that is written about them, if it is true, the press have an obligation and the power to stand up to those who might try to silence them. As can be expected by a documentary with this topic, the final parts of the film focus on showing the current US President condemning, bullying, mocking, shunning, and lying to the press. And while these actions are integral to the film’s topic and the film makes a point to connect these instances with the overall story unfolding throughout the documentary, these parts really highlight a potential flaw in this style of filmmaking. Because the threat presented by the subject of the end of the film is so real and immediately pervasive, there is no way for the movie to seem current enough for the message to carry the weight needs to carry. The film ends with clips from events from less than a month ago, but even those seem like old news by yesterday because there is something more preposterous or more destructive said nearly every day.
This is no fault of the film, but it does slightly diminish the message. Where a year ago, Nobody Speak might have had a huge impact, since it is impossible to keep shoving more and more new footage into it (which did happen between its debut at Sundance and this showing at SXSW), it will always feel a little bit tame. Regardless of that, it is great, its topic is important, and everyone should see it. Just be ready to hear the press talk about how important they are and be willing to accept that the film marks a moment in time when it wasn’t apparent every single day that the free press is in a very dire situation.