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What Netflix’s Depp v. Heard Documentary Gets Wrong

In 2016, actress Amber Heard (Aquaman) filed for divorce from her famous actor husband Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). In 2018, she published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in which she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse,” alluding to previous allegations she had made against Depp days after filing for divorce.

The following year, Depp sued his ex for defamation in a Virginia court (where the Washington Post has an address and where defamation laws are traditionally more favorable to plaintiffs), requesting $50 million in damages to his reputation. The subsequent six week-trial in April 2022 captured the attention of the internet due to the caliber of the celebrities involved, its implications for the #MeToo movement, and the extremely questionable decision from Judge Penney S. Azcarate to allow cameras in the courtroom. The jury would ultimately rule mostly in Depp’s favor, awarding him $15 million total in damages, while granting Heard $2 million as part of her $100 million countersuit. Depp and Heard would later settle for $1 million.

Suffice it to say, anyone who wanted to have an opinion about the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial already had more than enough ammunition to make one. All Depp v. Heard does is repackage the raw footage of the trial along with the often distasteful commentary from social media onlookers.

“Hey, this thing happened,” is a perfectly acceptable approach to documentary filmmaking when the subject is actually something that most people were unaware happened. The case presented in Depp v. Heard, however, required a firmer touch – like those expert interviews, talking heads, and further context that Cooper decided to eschew. Instead, the end result of Depp v. Heard is like being presented a video of a car crash you were just in. “Hey, did you know this thing happened?” You did, in fact. The broken glass is still making its way through your skin.

The other issue at the heart of Depp v. Heard is that, while the documentary seeks to present nothing but pure reality, Netflix’s limited three-episode docuseries format necessitates that it leave out some crucial bits of information. Though Cooper’s series is as thorough as it can be given the circumstances, we feel there’s an opportunity to delve into some of the aspects it left out.

NOTE: There are many, many, many places one can visit on the internet for more information about the Depp v. Heard trial. For the purposes of this piece, we are drawing chiefly from the following articles: “The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Verdict Is Chilling” (The New Yorker), “The Biggest Takeaways From Those Unsealed Depp v. Heard Documents” (The Cut), “Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and their $50 million defamation suit, explained” (Vox). Additional articles will be linked throughout when necessary.

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