It’s odd timing that I would watch "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" streaming on Netflix, soon after watching the Samuel Fuller-directed classic "Park Row" streaming on Amazon Prime (and previously on FilmStruck). Such viewing decisions don’t always line up so wonderfully, but this time it happened rather well. Both the documentary and movie respectively, while on opposing vod platforms and separated by several decades, are connected by a singular noble idealism: That journalism, the fourth estate, should be free and independent, allowed to report on just about anything and anyone. Of course, the “just about” portion is where conflict comes into play. Thankfully, we live in a country that allows that conflict to play out before the eyes of its citizens.
For a time, anyways. "Nobody Speak" starts with the Hulk Hogan/Gawker lawsuit and eventually lands on Donald Trump’s “fake news” saga and treatment of reporters. Both scenarios, believe it or not, are eerily similar. On one hand, you have the sex tape seen – for worse and worser – around the wrestling world, and the near-tabloid news organization presenting the information in a sensational manner. The court case between both parties, almost kangaroo in nature, showcased the disgust and distrust people have for media, which they see as completely biased and unforgiving.
Deeper, though, it raised the question of where the line is between public and private, whether crossing it is “bad,” and whether the news men and women who do so ought to be held legally accountable. It’s all really too much to swallow, as philosophical quandaries and contradictory answers abound; I’m not even sure where I stand on the matter, and I’m a writer. "Nobody Speak" makes its argument clear, but there is a terribly loud amount of noise in the presentation of its content that makes it difficult for you to make your own decision. Plenty of facts, not enough time to breath.
On the other hand, we have a stranger than fiction, braver than brave story of down-to-Earth newspaper reporters uncovering a conspiracy involving the super rich purchasing a piece of the public trust. Interviews and monologues, histories and debates, feuds and truth all come out in a whirlwind of journalistic integrity and duty to the greater good. In what is the vastly more interesting and absolutely more powerful part of the documentary, the beating heart of newsrooms is heard in every scene, inducing goosebumps and chills. "Nobody Speak" may feel like two different movies in one, and may be an overload of data, but when it settles into a rhythm of inspirational courage in the face of ignorance and corruption, it’s hard not to sing along. Manipulative, yes, but not totally wrong.
The fact that major movers and shakers like Peter Thiel and Sheldon Adelson would feature in this film is not surprising. Both businessmen have their hands in many respective cookie jars, with little to no hand slapping from authorities when they're caught in a predicament. Thiel backed the Hogan lawsuit, and Adelson bought out a media company, both for revenge and personal gain. The gain? To control the spread of information as they see fit. How do they see fit? Well, a little Ayn Randian philosophy and some convenient deleting of names from records puts a smile on well groomed faces. Nobody Speak portrays these wealthy figures through the petty nature that lurks in their hearts. It's good to connect the dots of behavior and action, of business and conflict. For sure, we need a free and open press.
One of my favorite autobiographies, from former wrestler Mick Foley, is subtitled “And the real world is faker than wrestling.” This statement is no more true than it was in "Nobody Speak." Here we see footage of Trump fighting and yelling at Wrestlemania, along with Hulk Hogan’s embodiment of American values personified. During his lawsuit, the man under the beard says, under oath, that when he talked of his exploits on TV and radio, it was all in character. It’s an absurd argument that can be used whenever, from whomever, but the jury ate it up. It's also an argument that our current White House has used to defend its leader. Is it hard to believe that Trump would use a most successful finishing maneuver from the most successful wrestler ever? Truly we're in a new reality. And it’s written by WWE.
"Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" is by no means ho hum or average, and certainly not safe or mild – just what it shouldn't be – but it’s still like a college lecture two hours too long, or a race that only gets interesting at the end. It’s got the spirit of better films like "Park Row, "but only in a forced, triumphant way. You could say in an ironically, creatively propaganda like way. Yet it’s propaganda for a good cause that deserves more conversations and respect. Fox News may be mostly awful, but they have that right to express such awfulness. And we have the right to criticize them and change channels. Without this balance, with fewer options, what kind of information flow would we have in this country? What kind of behavior would we encourage? Who might we elect?
Rating: 3 / 5
Bill Arceneaux is an independent film critic from New Orleans and a member of Southeastern Film Critics Association. Follow him on twitter at @billreviews