As an Ontarian born and raised, without even a drop of American blood, I was not raised to foam at the mouth when discussing ‘free speech’ as a right; contrary to popular belief, Canadian law promises no such thing. Court and convention have turned the culture in such a direction, but not nearly as rabidly as in the American states to the south.
In quite as many words, it would be hard to find someone opposed to free speech in its name, and I consider myself a considerably vocal advocate for it; I have donated to GoFundMe’s fighting false copyright claims and I have written abysmal poetry about the importance of genuine expression. (For the sake of all of us, it hasn’t seen the light of day since freshman year of high school).
This is one level of passion; Brian Knappenberger is on another plane entirely. The director and creator of Nobody Speak: Trials of The Free Press, Knappenberger takes on the topic of alleged suppression of the free press by the rich and the powerful. Arguing that the fourth estate cannot be jeopardized by 7th digit bank sums, he analyzes three cases where the media has been targeted either by law, money or mob and subjected to destruction.
On paper, this would be more than enough to sell me. On Netflix however, the final product leaves itself open to far more critique. More for selection than style, Knappenberger muddles his defense by centering his documentary around an institution many would question the worth of saving.
Gawker media, a trendy tabloid self-inflatedly labelled as the voice of ‘unspoken journalism’ (conveniently, only by people working for Gawker), has a long history of making enemies with… well, everybody.
The punchline of many a Jimmy Kimmel joke and a joke in itself to many more reputable journalists, Gawker engaged itself in an absurd trial seemingly made for a documentary when it published a sex tape featuring the tried and true American hero (at the time) Hulk Hogan in 2012.
Chronicling the trial for the bulk of its length, Nobody Speak makes its position clear early: the press is to be defended from attack at every turn. Even as it features many voices mocking Gawker, it shouts louder that even they need to be defended. Credit where it is due, Nobody successfully translates an intimidating “when they came for me, there was no one left” vibe. Threatening an endless witch hunt, it alternatively coats its words with scare or sugar when needed.
My own opinions about the Gawker trial are complex, but through a long-winded lead-up, Nobody is ultimately successful at presenting its own case as to why the trial was important. If it had been a 40 minute mini-doc about the trial exclusively, then it would have been fantastic; perhaps for funding or over-ambition however, Knappenberger stuffs in two other cases that muddy the water. Even though it runs only 80 minutes, it feels crammed in, and the stitching together of a coherent narrative works for two stories very well, but leaves the third oddly alone. Departing with a message seemingly cobbled out of thin air, advocating not for fairer treatment of the press as the entirety of the rest of the documentary did, but for renewed journalistic integrity, making the message seem mixed.