The Rich and Ruthless Are Winning at Sundance
Hulk Hogan Gawker documentary 'Nobody Speak' and Salma Hayek's 'Beatriz at Dinner' are depressing reflections on power and money.
Hulk Hogan's penis is ten inches long, but Terry Bollea's is not. And Bollea, the man who has publicly performed the role of American Hero Hulk Hogan for decades, really wants to make sure that we're clear on that. Bollea's boasts to the media about his genitalia and sexual exploits were neither lies nor invasions of privacy because, according to Bollea's lawyers, they were all said by fictional character Hulk Hogan, who can have any size dick he wants because he isn't real and therefore is incapable of telling a lie or having his privacy violated. If the one-minute sex tape excerpt published by news blog Gawker in 2012 had featured Hulk Hogan, then there would have been no lawsuit at all, but what viewers in fact saw was private citizen Terry Bollea having sex with his best friend's wife, not Hogan; therefore, publishing the clip constituted not just a privacy violation, but also an intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Florida jury bought this argument over Gawker's claims that they had protection under the First Amendment, awarding Bollea/Hogan a settlement of more than $140 million in March 2016, effectively bankrupting Gawker, which closed its site by August of that year. Cut to Trump surrogate Katrina Pierson claiming that Trump's sexist remarks wouldn't stick because he'd made them as "a television character."
Brian Knappenberger's documentary Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, which was among the impressive number of Sundance documentaries picked up this week by Netflix, doesn't linger on the details of Bollea v. Gawker case, most of which are already well-known, nor does it tell us anything new about the necessity of a free press in a democracy. Instead, the documentary uses the trial as a sort of canary in the mine, warning us of the inevitability of further suppression of press freedom and how powerless we may be to stop it. The documentary has many scenes, all of which I'd seen before, featuring Trump's various condemnations of the press—including inciting his supporters to attack journalists covering his rallies and promising to "open up the libel laws" so that his administration could "sue [news organizations] like you've never got sued before." Also not new were the images of people in their MAGA hats wearing shirts that read: "Rope. Tree. Journalist." I'd seen all this when he was running for president, but the effect of re-seeing this footage days after Trump's inauguration—sitting in a press screening no less, surrounded by journalists from all over the country—was absolutely nauseating.
While some have expressed moderate skepticism as to Trump's ability to devastatingly affect libel laws, Nobody Speak reminds us that the complicity of our government's executive branch is not required to destroy press outlets. All that's needed is a billionaire with a vendetta, as Gawker discovered when it was revealed that Silicon Valley impresario Peter Thiel was bankrolling Hogan's legal team. Thiel—whose contributions to society include investments in Paypal, Facebook, and the book The Diversity Myth, which argues that racism is a problem invented by people who are just looking to be offended and that democracy has been outmoded since women got the right to vote—has had a turbulent history with Gawker ever since they outed Thiel as gay in 2007. He justified his involvement in the destruction of Gawker by calling it journalism at its very worst. But, of course, it doesn't matter if Gawker was deplorable or not. What matters is that an offended billionaire has the power to shut down a news organization that he doesn't like, a point the film also drills home by presenting the story of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which was covertly purchased in 2015 by most-coveted Republican donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. After the sale, the Review-Journal saw its best investigative reporters fired or pushed out, was forbidden to write about the Adelson family and their business dealings in Nevada, and became the first newspaper to endorse Trump for president.
Are you thoroughly depressed yet? If not, then go see Beatriz at Dinner, a not-at-all subtle film about capitalists and the people's lives they destroy in the pursuit of wealth and real estate. Salma Hayek stars as Beatriz, a Mexican immigrant massage therapist, who, after her car breaks down, is reluctantly invited to stay for a dinner party at the mansion of a wealthy client. Beatriz can claim the best ensemble cast at Sundance as Hayek is supported by Connie Britton, John Lithgow, Jay Duplass, Chloë Sevigny, and David Warhofsky who all turn in exemplary performances as horrible, rich white people. The casting of Hayek is brilliant, not just because of the grace and depth of character she brings to this role, making it easily one of the best of her career, but also because she is much shorter than the rest of cast, hammering home the obvious futility of the "little guy" against corporate giants. This particular visual is reinforced when Beatriz attempts small talk with real estate mogul, David, played by human giant John Lithgow who, at 6'4'', is over a foot taller than Hayek. David quickly asks where Beatriz is from. When she cites her neighborhood in Los Angeles, he looms over her like a lamppost and says, "No, where are you really from?"
The film delivers in many places on the kind of cringe-worthy dark humor that frequent collaborators Mike White and Miguel Arteta are known for, but ultimately it is a rather heavy-handed dose of despair for anyone left naïve enough to think a pleading voice for compassion matters in the face of profit. The impeccable acting and well-written dialogue make it a movie worth seeing, but maybe not until there's a class-conscious Democrat in office.
Neither Nobody Speak nor Beatriz at Dinner offers much in terms of hope or possible solutions to the problems we, as a society, face. Instead they both seem to be saying little other than: Rich people win. And none of this is going to end well.
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