Director: Brian Knappenberger
Cast: Terry Bollea
Watch Nobody Speak online in the UK: Netflix UK
Hulk Hogan sex tape. Those four words are enough to catch anyone’s attention, So when Gawker published part of the infamous video in 2012, and promptly got sued by the former wrestler, the result looked like a typical case of muck-raking tabloid journalism being held to account. After all, this was Gawker, the website that was dedicated to defiantly publishing the showbiz gossip that other publications wouldn’t publish – sordid between-the-lines insider takes that were served up with opinionated headlines and a snappy, sassy confidence. Nobody Speak, though, is a reminder that the lawsuit was far from that simple.
Director Brian Knappenberger makes the smart move to build up slowly to its central dispute, carefully going back over the Hogan case down to every bizarre detail. The fact that the video featured the wife of one of his best friends, known as Bubba the Love Sponge. The fact that he had already milked its existence for publicity on talk shows. The fact that the tape also showed him saying racist and homophobic comments.
Whether that was the real reason for him so vociferously pursuing Gawker, after they refused to take the video clip down, eventually becomes irrelevant, as Knappenberger uses the strange-but-true situation as a springboard to launch into his real argument: that the case against Gawker represented a worrying infringement upon the freedom of the press. Those who read reports around the scandal at the time will recall that Bollea’s prosecution was funded by Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal. Thiel was outed by Gawker a decade ago, which made this trial a chance for him to bankroll some revenge.
That might sound like more tabloid gossip, but Nobody Speak once again employs those sensationalist headlines to raise more serious questions of truth and power. By withdrawing the emotional distress claim in the lawsuit, Hogan’s team ensured that Gawker couldn’t use its insurance to pay for any damages, which essentially set the site up for bankruptcy. The notion of one wealthy person being able to dismantle an entire publication has never been more pertinent, as President Donald Trump takes on the media with cries of “fake news” and rich individuals increasingly buy out UK newspapers during cash-strapped times for the media. The need for an objective press has rarely been so pressing. It’s all too fitting that one of Bollea’s arguments in court is that when he was bragging about the sex tape on TV, he was doing so as his fictional alter-ego Hulk Hogan, not as himself, Terry Bollea – a blurring of fact and fiction that is so ridiculous it could only have been said in the last 12 months.
Knappenberger’s thematic through-line weakens slightly, as his slow first act gives way to a more rushed conclusion, which doesn’t allow for much time to join the dots with related situations in a lot of depth – the lack of Hogan, or even Thiel, giving their account of events doesn’t help with the feeling that this is an overview of an argument for people who will already agree. But that doesn’t take away from the importance of the subject matter, or the careful balancing of juicy scandal and political weight – just enough of the former (complete with energetic soundtrack) to keep even the most casual viewer hooked, without skimping on the latter. Indeed, with Thiel now one of Trump’s advisors, the documentary couldn’t have come at a better time. Nobody speak? Somebody better say something.
Nobody Speak: Trials of a Free Press is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.