Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press


Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) runs out of fingers to count how many pro wrestling titles he’s won.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Nick Denton, Hulk Hogan, A.J. Daulerio, Charles Harder, David Folkenflik, Peter Thiel, David Birenspan, John Cook, David Carr, Floyd Abrams, Peter Sterne, David Houston, Leslie Savan, Will Alden, Ryan Mac, Matt Drange, Elizabeth Spiers, James Wright, Hike Hengel, John L. Smith, Jennifer Robison. Directed by Brian Knappenberger

 

Long considered one of the pillars of democracy, a free and independent press acted as a check on the powerful; their job to shine the light of truth on those who would keep things hidden in the darkness. In recent years, the press has come under attack particularly by our current President who has gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people.”

It is easy for someone like myself to take umbrage; after all, I spent almost 15 years in the newspaper business and continue as a writer and a commentator albeit as a movie reviewer. Still, the Free Press tends to be something of a sacred trust to me and people like me. It is sometimes easy to forget that the state of the media has changed radically. Gone are the days of local newspapers being crusaders; most newspapers are owned by corporate interests and are expected to turn a profit which has become increasingly difficult in this age of the Internet. Some of the charges brought against the Media aren’t without merit.

This documentary, which played Sundance last year and has been playing on Netflix since not long after that, examines the assault on the Press from three vantages. The first and most lengthy is coverage of the Gawker Hulk Hogan sex tape suit. Gawker was something of a tabloid website that specialized in lurid news stories that mainstream outlets wouldn’t touch. When a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan getting busy with his friend shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge’s wife, Hogan (whose real name is Terry Bollea) requested that the tape be taken down. When Gawker refused, Hogan sued. Getting a judge who once represented Terry Schiavo’s parents in that heart-wrenching case, the judgment went against the website, to the tune of $140 million (which was later negotiated down to $31 million). The result was that Gawker declared bankruptcy and their media empire (which included other websites like Jezebel and Gizmodo) were sold to Latin media giant Univision and Gawker was quietly shut down.

The film portrays the website and its British founder Nick Denton as crusaders for the free press, but that’s a bit misleading. Media critic the late David Carr of the New York Times once referred to the site as “The Mean Girls of journalism.” The question that is brought up but not really addressed is that where privacy get superseded by the right of the press to report the news. David Houston, Bollea’s lawyer, successfully argued that Hulk Hogan having sex is not news and on that I would agree.

After the judgment is handed down, it is revealed that the lawsuit was funded by billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and former founder of Pay Pal) Peter Thiel, a Trump supporter, who was once outed by Gawker and wanted to not only see them taken down a peg but to be driven out of existence which he was successful in doing. This is troubling particularly when the next segment, the surprise 2015 purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by mysterious buyers.

The reporters at the newspaper of record for Sin City are told to do their jobs and not worry about who owns the paper but that is like waving bloody red meat in the face of a starving wolf. Soon the investigative journalists at the newspaper discover that the purchaser is GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Venetian and one of the biggest financial supporters of Republican political candidates next to the Koch Brothers. He essentially wanted to buy the paper to control the news coming out about his casino and business dealings.

These are troubling trends that billionaires dissatisfied with the coverage about them can simply buy the news and then have their own agenda  become part of the media landscape. Knappenberger most certainly brings up some very important and troubling questions; unfortunately he gets a bit preachy towards the end which dilutes his point quite a bit. Still, in these times where the press is being demonized, it behooves us to understand the forces behind the campaign to discredit the media. While no newspaper reporter is ever truly unbiased, there is at least an expectation that the facts will be verifiable and correct. The fact that now we seem to prefer to get our news from echo chambers rather than from sources that at least place value on the truth is something that could end up destroying our country from within.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a worthwhile one. There’s plenty of detail in the information presented. There are some unexpected twists and turns. It’s a chilling look at how the First Amendment has been systematically eroded.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers get a little preachy towards the end. There’s a little too much quick-cutting for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, it did get a brief theatrical run followed by it’s Netflix debut in June of last year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tabloid
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Wrinkle in Time

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The Post


“Thanks for the coffee but my Oscar is still shinier than YOUR Oscar!”

(2017) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Michael Stuhlbarg, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemmons, David Cross, Zach Woods, Pat Healey, John Rue, Rick Holmes, Philip Casnoff, Jessie Mueller, Stark Sands, Michael Cyril Creighton, Will Denton, Deidre Lovejoy. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In these troubled times, the veracity of the Free Press has been assaulted by the President. If that feels familiar to older readers, it’s because it was tried once before – by Richard Nixon. It is somewhat comforting to know it didn’t end well for him but before the Watergate scandal took him down there was the Pentagon Papers.

The Pentagon Papers were documents leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg (Rhys), a security consultant than employed by the RAND Corporation but previously an analyst for the Pentagon. At RAND he worked on the Pentagon papers, documents commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Greenwood) about the decisions made during the war. After a crisis of conscience caused him to rethink his position as a defense analyst, he chose to surreptitiously remove the thousand pages of documents a little at a time to make copies of them at the ad agency of his then-girlfriend. Eventually he got the papers into the hands of the New York Times.

When the Times published portions of the Papers it was as if a bomb went off in the American consciousness. The Papers clearly showed that the war in Vietnam was not winnable – and moreover that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all knew it. The Papers also established that the government had been lying to the American public all that time. Although the Papers all concerned the tenures of those Presidents, the current President of the time, Nixon, was absolutely furious that the documents were leaked and the U.S. Government filed an injunction against the Times to suppress any further publication of the Papers. Nixon and his advisers felt that the Papers would erode American confidence in their own government which of course is what came to pass.

That’s where the Washington Post came in. Incensed at being scooped on the Papers, crusty editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) orders his team of reporters to see if any copies of the Papers can be found. Despite the court order banning the publication of the Papers, one of the reporters – Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) – got in touch with Ellsberg, leading to a quandary for Bradlee and his publisher Katherine Graham (Streep) whether or not to defy the court order or do their duty to the American people.

It was a particularly quandary in that the Post was about to go public; were there to be a government action against the newspaper and the Publisher individually the badly needed infusion of cash could dry up and the Post might actually go under.

Graham was a woman of her era; in her 50s at the time that this took place, her husband had been publisher of the paper (inheriting the title from Graham’s father) she was a woman in a man’s world. When she entered the board room of her own newspaper, she was the lone woman. She was often condescended to and she herself felt more comfortable at social gatherings hanging out with the wives than with the policy makers. She did have a close personal relationship with McNamara which was a further complication.

The Post is a celebration of the free press, make no mistake about it. It also illustrates how important that a free and objective press is to the functioning of our nation. Besides that there is also a push for feminism and how the roles of women have changed as women have become more empowered. Obviously, those issues have become extremely timely in the wake of the current administration’s attacks on the press which is roundly proclaimed “fake news” if it in any way disagrees with the world view of the President, as well as the advent of the Me Too movement.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie has three of the most important names in movies over the last three decades participating. Spielberg is considered by some to be the greatest director in the history of movies and while devotees of Hitchcock, Ford, Capra and Scorsese might give that some healthy debate, none can deny that he is one of the greatest ever. Here, he’s at his very best; not a single scene is wasted and every shot not only advances the story but captures an emotional mood. There are plenty who consider Spielberg “the great manipulator” and there is some truth to that. His longtime collaborator John Williams writes a score that might be proof of that.

Hanks is not usually a name one associates with a Bradlee-like character but he has some personal connection to the former Post editor; the two were neighbors on Long Island and knew each other socially. He captures Bradlee’s accent note-perfectly as well as his dogged determination. This doesn’t compare to Jason Robards’ Oscar-winning performance as the legendary editor in All the President’s Men but it is a terrific performance nonetheless.

Streep, however, is absolutely amazing in the movie. It has garnered her yet another Oscar nomination and while she is in no way guaranteed a win, it wouldn’t be a crime if she did. Graham was a complex person who became something of an unlikely icon for the feminist movement and perhaps reluctantly so. As time went by she would become more self-confidence and assured; the events depicted here helped with that, but she was truly a woman who reinvented herself in middle age at a time when women were largely still shackled to the kitchen.

I will admit that the Linotype machines and printing presses depicted here brought me some nostalgia; as someone who worked at the San Jose Mercury News in the 80s and 90s I was familiar with the machinery and seeing them in action here did give me the warm fuzzies. So too did seeing the press at the height of its power and significance; in the years before being purchased by corporate entities who largely stifled their search for truth in favor of a search for advertising dollars. Newspapers remain relevant today (the Post continues to do excellent reporting on the Russian voting interference scandal as well as other important news stories of our day) but they have changed quite a bit. People tend not to get their news from newspapers so much but from social media sites, a dangerous practice. It is the responsibility of the citizen to be vigilant in order to keep our own government in check. When we remain firmly ensconced in echo chambers that do little more than validate our own point of view, we lose sight of what is actually happening. That’s how democracies fail.

REASONS TO GO: This is the work of one of the best directors ever at the top of his game; there’s not a single wasted scene. Streep delivers an incredible performance. The film manages to tackle both freedom of the press and the inequality of the treatment of women. Despite being set more than 40 years ago, the events are just as timely as ever
REASONS TO STAY: Those who are blind supporters of the President will see this as a slap in the face.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as a scene of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stuhlbarg appears in three of the films nominated for a 2018 Best Picture Oscar (this, Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water) but was not nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for any of them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the President’s Men
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Cassidy Red