WASHINGTON – On Aug. 16, Netflix released a three-part docuseries revisiting last summer’s televised civil litigation over allegations that Amber Heard had defamed ex-husband Johnny Depp by claiming to have survived sexual violence and domestic abuse during their four-year relationship.
Rather than offering anything new by way of insight or analysis from anyone with relevant qualifications or experience, each episode features clips from some of the online “creators” who turned their hot takes on the trial into a veritable cottage industry of amateur legal commentary and courtroom conspiracy theories, feeding the rapacious demand for anti-Heard and pro-Depp content. (As if to underscore the project’s unseriousness, these included a men’s rights YouTuber who wore a Deadpool mask and was surrounded by Spider-Man costumes.)
Worse still, “Depp v. Heard” director Emma Cooper fails not only to answer but also to even ask the obvious questions that have lingered since a verdict was returned more than 14 months ago by seven jurors in northern Virginia who were not sequestered as the case became, by far, the most popular topic on social media and online platforms.
At the same time, however, the episodes include footage of courtroom testimony that offer a glimpse, though incomplete, into some of the trial’s more salient and dispositive moments that I otherwise would never have seen (with neither the time nor the inclination, either last year or now, to follow 120+ hours of argument by the parties presented over the course of a seven-week trial.)
Do these scenes redeem the series? Hardly. But that does not mean they offer nothing of value, especially considering that while this was not the retelling of last summer’s events that we deserve, it remains the only one we’ve got. At least, for now.
Susan Sontag, in her 1977 collection of essays “On Photography,” proclaimed “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
In “Depp v. Heard,” the cameras facilitate a very specific kind of tourism that feels both exploitative and voyeuristic, because the reality in which we find ourselves trespassing is dark: the unraveling of a relationship between movie stars through patterns of dysfunction and abuse both familiar and alien, knowable and unknowable, like a city you have visited but never called home.
Especially when coupled with the more outrageous moments from trial that made headlines at the time – such as the debate over whether Heard defecated on Depp’s bed and blamed his teacup Yorkshire Terrier – there is a temptation to treat footage of testimony concerning the smashing of liquor bottles and hurling of wine glasses, the shoving and taunting and threats, even the physical and sexual violence, as though it were pure spectacle.
However, this would suggest, wrongly, that the painful realities of the actors’ relationship are so far removed from our lived experiences that we do not, cannot, or should not relate to them. As if a seven-week trial adjudicating the conflicts in our own intimate relationships or those involving the people we love would not turn up evidence of trouble and dysfunction, or worse.
Considering that we are primed to pick winners and losers and heroes and villains, perhaps it was unsurprising that incomplete and selectively edited footage from the case provided ample fodder for Instagram reels and TikTok videos that were created in the service of narratives that, most often, favored Depp and vilified Heard.
For me, witnessing these scenes in their proper context revealed a picture so much more complicated and, frankly, ugly that the prospect of framing the case in this manner seemed as preposterous as the idea that audiences leaving a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” should find themselves allied with either Martha or George.
To take just one example: From the witness stand, Heard recounted how she would often return home to their shared Los Angeles penthouse to find Depp nodding off in a chair because he had washed Roxicodone down with whiskey, or lying supine on the sofa fully unconscious with melted ice cream pooled in his lap. Worried about her husband’s apparent substance use disorder and unsure how best to help, the actress admitted she would sometimes take photos of him and share the pictures with a trusted friend.
Or, Depp’s attorney asked, was she just trying to humiliate him? Or, online commentators asked (often rhetorically), was this a calculated and premeditated move to collect evidence she would use against Depp in litigation or for purposes of extorting him?
As if these motives are mutually exclusive.
Having experienced the pain of watching loved ones spiraling in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, I can tell you why I suspect Heard took the photos, but of course the reality is neither I nor anyone else – perhaps not even she – has any clue.
Last year, so much of the online noise about the trial came from content creators who made specious arguments to poke holes in the credibility of Heard’s testimony or alleged ulterior, sinister hidden motives based on the actress’s countenance, demeanor, speech, and other behavior.
For example, in clips that were often selectively edited or presented outside of their proper context, Heard might have seemed to cry more hysterically upon realizing the cameras were trained on her, which were used as supposed proof that her claims of suffering abuse at the hands of her ex-husband must therefore be fabricated.
Watching the footage in the manner presented on screen in “Depp v. Heard,” it becomes even more obvious how silly these interpretations were. In reality, of course, no one – not even police officers, trial court judges, F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents, trial lawyers or forensic psychiatrists – can reliably spot when someone is lying to them.
However convincing some YouTuber may have been, and however comforting the idea that we are able to see through the lies of others, I’m sorry to tell you the research on this is overwhelming and uncontested.
As Malcolm Gladwell observes in “Talking to Strangers,” Amanda Knox was falsely convicted for a murder she did not commit because “much of the prosecution’s case…rested on the allegedly strange, guilty behavior she exhibited,” which “the public deemed not in line with typical responses to grief and trauma.”
The cameras did not tell the complete story.
Well before 2022, private details about Depp and Heard’s troubled relationship had spilled onto the pages of tabloids like The Sun, which called Depp a “wife beater” in a 2018 story alleging that “overwhelming evidence was filed to show Johnny Depp engaged in domestic violence against his wife.” After he sued the paper for defamation, London’s High Court of Justice ruled against the actor in 2020, concluding the claims at issue were “substantially true.”
Still, last summer’s litigation between the actors earned far more public attention and unearthed far more (and far more titillating) private information, causing, therefore, far more damage than the supermarket rags and gossip blogs – as well as, ironically, the financial and reputational damage resulting from the very defamation claims that were adjudicated at trial.
As a reminder, Depp sued his ex-wife for a 2018 opinion article in the Washington Post in which she had written, “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Heard was referencing the backlash against, essentially, identical claims she made in a statement after securing a restraining order against Depp following their divorce in 2016. (“During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me,” she wrote.)
In so many cases including this one, intimate partner abuse is messy. An audio recording of one of the couple’s arguments shows Heard acknowledging she had struck her ex-husband but denying that she punched him. Her testimony, meanwhile, detailed serious violent crimes, including that Depp had thrown her into a ping pong table and repeatedly hit her in the face before sexually assaulting her with a liquor bottle that may have been broken.
Of course, assuming their sworn testimony to be true, it must also be said, domestic violence is a gendered crime. And the imbalanced power dynamics within their relationship put Heard at a disadvantage, including in this respect. While both are famous actors, the wealth, power, and fame wielded by Depp was then (and remains, now) much greater.
The disparity was evident from the outset. In the Netflix series, throngs of fans are shown cheering the Pirates of the Caribbean star and booing Heard on the first day they were sighted arriving separately to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. Meanwhile, online, evidence of a sustained and coordinated character assassination of Heard had just begun to emerge.
The smear campaign would persist through the trial and beyond. The actress was called a manipulative liar, a gold digger, an abuser, a violent psychopath, a drug addict, and worse. Some of the most outrageous claims were among the most widely circulated: She snorted cocaine on the witness stand, killed her own mother to conceal testimony that would have exonerated Depp, plagiarized lines from the film The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Creators mocked Heard by lip-synching over audio of her testimony about suffering violent abuse in videos that went viral on TikTok along with hashtags like #JusticeForJohnnyDepp, which was seen nearly 3 billion times on the platform. (#justiceforamberheard earned just 25 million views.) One-sided articles and videos, many containing false and misleading claims, were promoted by Ben Shapiro’s conservative media outlet The Daily Wire through its estimated $35,000 and $47,000 purchase of Facebook and Instagram ads.
“Depp v. Heard” was panned by critics.
“If ever a true-crime documentary needed the usual collection of talking-head interviews with esteemed journalists, law enforcement veterans and legal experts to put things in perspective,” Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, “this is it — but that never happens.”
Others, like CNN’s Brian Lowry, agreed: “How much is gained from listening to a guy in a Deadpool mask offering extensive trial takes is a question ‘Depp v. Heard’ should have contemplated and apparently didn’t,” he wrote.
Several reviews added that part of the problem was that not nearly enough time had elapsed between the events and their retelling. Bustle’s Scaachi Koul pointed to other recent projects involving the private lives of public figures (especially women) that, with sufficient space and distance, found new and interesting things to say about their subjects and opportunities to tell their stories anew.
Ryan White’s excellent documentary “Pamela: A Love Story,” which was released by Netflix in January, manages to find plenty of worthwhile material about actress and model Pamela Anderson along with the broader sociocultural forces of the 90s and early aughts that helped shape – and were shaped by – the era’s most enduring sex symbol.
The film would have been nothing, however, without Anderson. Listening to her tell her own story, one realizes how poorly suited everyone else was to the task – particularly the leering talk show hosts and journalists who treated her as nothing more than a sex object.
And maybe that, above all else, is the lesson to be gleaned from “Depp v. Heard”: Let’s come back to this story when we’re ready to cut through the bullshit, reframe the conversation away from the “him vs. her” framing, stop relying on provably unreliable evidence, consider the broader context of their relationship and the impact of the trial that happened on TikTok and YouTube, and listen to Heard if and when she’s ready to talk about this again.
Until we get that docuseries (or documentary, scripted series, film, book, whatever), I fear everything else will be deeply unsatisfactory and unsatisfying.
Christopher Kane is the White House correspondent and chief political reporter for the Washington and Los Angeles Blade newspapers.