Directed by Emma Cooper, Depp v Heard attempts to restructure the live-streamed trial and juxtaposes the footage with the public discourse that ensued on social media.
The sensational and equally rancorous defamation trial involving the once-married couple of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is viewed from the prism of public opinion in this latest Netflix limited documentary series. Directed by Emma Cooper, Depp v Heard attempts to restructure the live-streamed trial and juxtaposes the footage with the public discourse that ensued on social media, particularly on platforms like TikTok. Was the courtroom battle fought fair and square by both parties or was social media complicit in influencing the jury members? Was the hate directed at Amber Heard too vitriolic and unjust? These are some of the main questions that Depp v Heard throws at us.
It's possible that almost every crevice of information, every element related to the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial is already covered by someone or the other out there. The trial, of course, was arguably the most discussed and scrutinized topic in all of 2022, despite the entire world still reeling under the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic, interestingly, could be factored in when we address the mania surrounding the trial because one could reckon that it brought all of us the guilty respite that we deserved.
The six weeks between April and June of 2022 saw the once-most-adored celebrity couple decimate itself minute by minute to dish out the most outrageous popcorn thrills to the rest of the world. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, under the garb of a defamation trial, unveiled the dark belly of fame and caused a massive wake-up jolt to everyone who believed that money and power also carried happiness with them. For an entire generation hooked to reality TV, the Depp v Heard trial turned out to be the motherload of outrageousness.
And quite unsurprisingly, the same event becomes the subject of Netflix's latest documentary because it has all the workings of a scandal that deserves a time capsule. The streamer has built its reputation over the years for using real-life mayhems to lend it a more consumer-friendly edge and it does exactly the same with Depp v Heard. The show comes as an overarching take on the sloppy legal process but more importantly, it reveals its interest in the biases that occurred on social media which may or may not have tilted the balance in one's favour. Depp v Heard wants to address the hazards of the power that social media withholds and how the courtroom trial in question is just a case study to understand its true wrath. It navigates that legal sloppiness in a fairly neutral before getting to the heart of the matter, but the path it takes to do so is so safe and rid of any task or risk that at the end of it all, you are left underwhelmed.
The problem with Depp v Heard, for starters, lies in its narrative. Emma Cooper, the director of the three-part series, is largely found unsure of the stance and while it is completely fair on her part in not wanting to pick a side, the concern is that lacks a point of focus. The narrative, in the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, has always been crystal clear so you are not really sure what both Netflix and Cooper are chasing here. We all have known right from the beginning that the trial was notoriously shrouded in a relentless public discourse and even that public opinion may have guided the proceedings in a certain manner.
There was a massive clique on the internet that showered Johnny Depp with love and hurled abuse at Heard. There were also those who counterargued that the patriarchal viewpoint is blaming the victim, Amber Heard, because, let's face it, Depp was no saint either. There was representation for all kinds - lawyers, podcasters, behaviour and body-language analysts, psychologists, etc. - of thought, all kinds of hypotheses and it all got so overwhelming at one point that the core issue of the trial emerged warped and disfigured. So much so that one almost telepathized their feelings (and not just opinions) to the jury inside the court, nudging them in one mindless direction after another.
And, so, no one at this point holds the power of dictum to decide who was right and who was wronged. The problem, though, for me arises when Netflix utilizes the vast material available but fails almost completely to put things into perspective. In an attempt to draw the focus away from the celebrity couple and cast it on the larger, more compelling issue, the docu. series ends up oversensationalizing certain moments, forcefully wanting to make us care about something that's already been over-discussed. It is true that content creators on TikTok and other platforms collectively made millions because of the trial. but the fact that social media, much like anything else, is opportunistic or even exploitative is not really startling any more. But Depp v Heard continues to drill into us that we must care.
Of course, one must feel seriously appalled and alarmed about a high-profile defamation trial being judged over Zoom calls, TikTok reels or quite literally on the streets. The Depp v Heard trial is, indeed, a harsh reminder of the cultural dystopia that is slowly enveloping us but the point is that Netflix, as the host of this premonition, does not care to dig deep. Three episodes put together, it is likely that one walks out feeling as though they watch an abridged version of a six-week-long courtroom proceeding rather than an incisive take. Sure, it does throw up quite a few compelling points about how tools like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube etc. are used for hate-spewing but you expect a show of this kind to do more than just underlining.
The contentious points are thrown around like footnotes in the final episode, the voices and opinions of both the show and the people it endorses seem extremely scattered and by the end of it all, you feel that the after-taste of the show is exploitative and plain dull.
It is highly likely that the she-said-he-said can of worms would be reopened on social media following the release of Depp v Heard. But beyond, it is also likely that one watches the show feeling undone by the sheer lack of focus and depth while dealing with one of the biggest moments in recent pop-culture. The showrunners carried a lot of burden, sure, but you cannot overlook the audacity with which Netflix approaches the show, feeling that having mere access to all the courtroom footage allows them the right to shape any narrative. Maybe they do have the right to do so but it cannot be denied that the latest docu. series is another example of Netflix's one-toned approach in retracing a historic moment. Watch Depp v Heard only if you want to remind yourself of what unfolded about a year ago but do not expect the show to do any of the interrogation for you.