Publications aggregating social media reactions from preview screenings of upcoming movies is a fairly recent phenomenon. It offers little by way of depth and at least one veteran screenwriter has figured out a way to get his clearly absurdist fake reactions included in many of these roundups. But I can still understand why it’s fun to get the temperature in the room before formal reviews and analyses drop.
You would never, however, attempt to run an aggregation of those same initial social media responses four or five weeks after the movie had actually been released. Readers would see the headline and go, “Hmmm… Surely we have more voices and data points than that now? Surely there’s a deeper and more nuanced conversation that we’re ready to have?”
Depp v. Heard
The Bottom Line
Could be worse, but could hardly be more pointless.
Airdate: Wednesday, August 16 (Netflix)
Director: Emma Cooper
Emma Cooper’s three-part Netflix series Depp v. Heard, arriving over a year after Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against Amber Heard reached its exhausting conclusion, is the documentary equivalent of one of those aggregated “first reactions” articles. Using social media responses from the trial, along with pool footage of courtroom testimony, Cooper is able to give an overview of what may or may not have been the first “TikTok trial,” to capture the sloppiness of the legal process and the spectacular biases of online sentiment — and to say exactly what was already evident to everybody at the time.
For viewers coming out of a 10-year coma, Depp v. Heard is sure to be vaguely enlightening and disheartening, but otherwise, it’s hard to know who the ideal audience would be. I’m sure some of the most vocal and flamboyant of online Johnny Depp supporters will be happy to see themselves represented with so little pushback, so maybe it will be a fun time capsule for them? The documentary isn’t wholly without attempted balance, but if you actually were conscious when the legal mess was unfolding, it’s generally pointless.
Surely not an exception to my rule that three-hour documentaries should almost always be either trimmed by an hour or expanded by multiple hours, Depp v. Heard breaks down the basics of the Fairfax County, Virginia, trial in the present tense without interest in or the advantage of hindsight. There are no talking heads or freshly contributed voices, just the stream of information that was being disseminated to the public through the trial.
It’s a technique that works best if the filmmaker is able to find previously unseen primary texts or to edit together the footage that we think we know in a way that presents new context or forces us to make new connections.
With Depp v. Heard, Cooper and her editor’s grand structural gesture is to put Depp’s and Heard’s testimonies side by side so that we get each of their respective takes on now-notorious incidents like the poop-in-the-bed, the sliced fingertip and the airplane fight. It’s a device that allows viewers to discover that in a trial that boiled down to he said/she said, “he” and “she” did, in fact, say different things. Insert astonished gasp here. That’s all intercut with the cottage industry of online pundits, some boasting legal credentials and some just boasting a passionate devotion to the star of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Cooper isn’t a reporter here and so Depp v. Heard isn’t going to tell us anything more about the case than we knew coming in. In fact, it tells us decidedly less than we knew coming in because the Virginia trial was inextricably linked to a previous libel case in the UK, a case that’s barely mentioned. There’s a lot of actual “legal” stuff that’s barely mentioned, as if to say, “Look, most of the people blathering about the case didn’t understand Virginia defamation law on anything more than a superficial level, so why should the documentary?”
The documentary’s concentration is on the court-of-public-opinion aspect of the Virginia trial, but not in a new or interesting way, or a way that asks questions or seeks answers. There are definitely points at which commentators in the documentary acknowledge and observe the toxic taint of the online conversation around the trial — not so much that people supported Depp over Heard, but that the most visible of Depp supporters did so with bizarre familiarity and cackling glee, while Twitter responses to Heard tended toward abuse and misogyny.
But people already recognized this fly in the sociological ointment at the time. That’s why Depp v. Heard is able to acknowledge and discuss it. But even when the editing is clever enough to imply something truly notable, the chosen documentary format prevents insight. It’s one thing to make suggestions about the amount of money involved for some of these content providers, and to correctly suggest that there was more money in the extremes of anti-Heard sentiment than in anything more measured. But if Cooper wasn’t going to do actual journalism — to follow the money and make those connections concretely — we’re left taking everybody at their word, without the documentary telling us a thing about who these crusaders for Depp even are or where their authority came from.
There’s a lot of “taking everybody at their word” in Depp v. Heard because Cooper’s goal is more about representing this court of public opinion than doing anything tangible with it. The anti-Heard side of the discourse comes from passionate zealots, colorful personalities wearing Deadpool masks or prone to yelling incredulously and profanely into their webcams; the pro-Heard side is conveyed in isolated tweets, brief clarifications of white text on a black screen or the occasional reluctant moderate on online panel shows. It’s less that Cooper wants her documentary to be balanced than that she wants to chronicle the imbalance, which apparently is almost impossible to do without perpetuating more of the imbalance.
It’s fine if you want to say that you’re just holding a mirror up to the internet, but if the internet is, at its most internet-y, already a hall of mirrors, you’re a piece of the ouroboros not a chronicler of it. An argument could be made that the choice of an observational documentary format rather than an analytical one was valid and the documentary shouldn’t be judged on things it doesn’t try to do. But Cooper is already cheating the format left and right, whether it’s the somewhat pro-Heard text or distracting re-enactments of “ordinary people” glued to their phones while doing “ordinary things.”
As best I can guess, the re-enactments are meant to reflect that regular folks were as captivated by the trial as the “professional” “experts” in the social media space yelling about “Amber Turd.” But is it also an indictment of those ordinary people? Is the documentary attempting to indict its own viewers when the intercutting of trial footage puts us in a position to judge the sincerity of Depp or Heard’s reactions to the other’s testimony? Is this a flimsy three-hour documentary dedicated to saying that anybody watching a flimsy three-hour documentary about flimsy analysis of a tawdry case will be stuck reproducing that cycle when the next TikTok trial comes along?
Maybe with more distance and more introspection and retrospection, we’ll someday get a good documentary about the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp trial, the online circus around it and what any of it says about poisoned online spaces and the poisoned cultural conversation. Depp v. Heard is not that documentary.