Unless you have zero interest in Hollywood you would have heard about the defamation case brought by Johnny Depp against his former wife Amber Heard. There was an almost voyeuristic interest in the trial that was live streamed.
Netflix’s Depp vs. Heard is the latest addition to a saga, the last chapter of which is perhaps not yet written. This is not the first documentation of the battles between the two stars. In one version we hear the story told from the perspectives of their supporters. Another focuses just on the verdict.
The documentary, a three-part Netflix offering, plunges into a real-time viewing of the trial, juxtaposing the testimonies of both parties to the same set of questions; placing them against insane public interest, mixed with expert viewpoints, and reactions of social media content creators as they unfolded during the six weeks that the trial was on. It does not go down the path of interviewing experts to analyse the collective cultural experience it became; and the machinery and the mindset that enabled it. It does not delve into its possible long-term repercussions on an already dying #MeToo movement, the dangers of misinformation, or, even, our gendered conditioning on the nature of domestic violence.
To those who watched the trial, this is at best a copy-paste recap. To those who did not, it might border on the annoying as it keeps cutting out to social media users (podcasters included) and their horrified/happy/insane/overboard reactions as they followed it, replete with memes.
This version of the trial’s telling is much like the trial itself, which offered nothing to understand the legal fact and nature of defamation that the case was centred around. It stands more at the crossroads of popular culture, social media user behaviour, and the circus that the mainstream media can be.
The contrasting responses of both parties to the same questions makes the ‘he said, she said’ telling stark―but offers nothing new. Certainly, not the probable truth, or even its periphery.
It also makes you wonder about what we really care about given that there was five times more coverage of the trial than there was of the then unfolding war in Ukraine.
It is only towards the last few minutes of episode three that it is revealed that 6,000 pages of material unused for evidence could well have made Depp not look as believable as he appeared during the trial. It is also revealed that the #JusticeForJohnnyDepp might well have been a bot-dominated algorithm.
As Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, said in a post-verdict interview, the decision to broadcast the trial turned it into a zoo. The documentary leaves the viewer wondering who the objects of spectacle in the zoo were. And if the truth ever mattered or it was just about who you liked better, who the better actor in the spectacle was.
It is a shallow telling of a story, which revealed as much of human nature as it did of the parties involved. You would be better off watching finer-made stories that Depp and Heard have been a part of in their cinematic careers.