Ya Heard Me

Netflix’s ‘Depp Vs. Heard’ documentary doesn’t quite prove its case

The defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard was the big legal event of last year, thoroughly litigated on TikTok to an even greater extreme than it was in the courtroom. The three episode docuseries Depp Vs. Heard, premiering worldwide on Netflix on August 16th following its original run in the United Kingdom via Channel 4, addresses both of these elements. It places dubious TikTok commentary alongside a chronologically compressed timeline of the major testimony for side-by-side comparison. In the trial Depp and Heard took turns.

Depp Vs. Heard doesn’t exactly hide its bitter attitude toward social media. By the third episode the constant use of extras watching trial footage on their screens to sinister ambient music has reached the point of self-parody. Oddly, this hostility doesn’t extend to TikToks which support the idea that Heard was unfairly railroaded in the court of public opinion, such as late clips alleging that Depp supporters were predominantly bots.

Despite Channel 4 clearly trying to present Depp Vs. Heard as an even-handed documentary, there are huge lapses in the evidence it shows. It makes a huge point of an incident where there was feces on Depp’s bed. Channel 4 notes that Depp claimed the feces were human, while Heard claimed that the feces were from his dogs. Despite testimony explicitly noting that, yes, human feces and dog feces look completely different from each other, particularly as Depp’s dogs are quite small, we never see a photo of the feces, lending credence to Heard’s claim.

As that sentence implies, the actual picture of the feces backs up Depp’s version of the story. This is a recurring theme. The most disturbing pictures featured deal with Johnny Depp having part of his finger cut off due to Heard shattering glass, something she admits to having done. By contrast, pictures of abuse allegedly committed by Johnny Depp on Heard don’t provide much of an emotional reaction.

In the most aurally gruesome moment of Depp Vs. Heard, Heard does discuss Depp using glass to commit sodomy on her. The trouble with this story is that as described, such an injury would have left major, possibly irreversible damage much worse even than Depp’s finger injury. But no pictures back this up, nor do any medical statements, despite Heard having access to doctors at this same incident.

While it’s not necessarily wrong to say that you shouldn’t trust social media hype, at no point does Depp Vs. Heard try to provide a compelling counter-narrative even to the streamer dressed like Deadpool, who’s the closest thing the documentary has to a misogynist antagonist. Time and again I’m just asking myself, that’s a strong claim. Where’s the evidence?

Ironically, more than being a referendum on Depp or  Heard or TikTok or streamers, Depp Vs. Heard is at its most compelling when we can compare the behavior of their legal teams. It’s quite clear that regardless of whether  Depp or Heard are guilty, Depp had by far superior legal representation. Time and again the unforced errors by Heard’s lawyers surprised me, as well as the extent to which Heard herself didn’t seem to understand the legal technicalities at play.

Where Depp is humble and contrite and able to see the dark humor of his situation, careful to stay on message and not go off-topic, Heard made the shockingly boneheaded mistake of implying that Depp pushed his ex-girlfriend Kate Moss down the stairs, allowing Depp’s legal team to call Moss as a rebuttal witness. You can clearly and immediately see Depp grasping the significance of this. And so I asked myself, why didn’t Heard’s lawyers similarly brief her on why Moss wasn’t testifying, and warned not to so much as mention her name for this exact reason?

Throughout Depp Vs. Heard we see her lawyers make constant missteps like this. The famed Megapint meme allows Depp to make Heard’s lawyer look like a buffoon. While Channel 4 tries to note that technically Depp was the first person to use the word Megapint in the United Kingdom libel trial (which he lost and which was significant for reasons Depp Vs. Heard doesn’t attempt to explain), that’s really missing the point. It’s a silly-sounding word. Unless he was going to call attention to it coming straight from Depp, the lawyer had no reason to bring it up at all.

So many of Depp Vs. Heard’s rationalizations fall flat like this. Another meme involves Heard’s other lawyer claiming that Amber Heard used a specific 2017 model make-up kit to cover up injuries sustained in a marriage that ended in 2016. Channel 4 tries to pass this off as the lawyer just speaking figuratively, but nope, her phrasing was definitely literal. Yes, the distinction is a pedantic one, but she’s a lawyer! It’s her job to know the pedantic stuff!

Then there are the attacks on the credibility of individual witnesses, which fall especially flat. An ex-TMZ reporter notes that TMZ could sue him for testifying as to the existence of a longer, unedited version of a video presented at trial which appeared to suggest that Heard staged the entire incident and never believed herself to be in any danger. Elsewhere Heard’s legal team tries to attack a flight attendant who didn’t see Depp assault Heard on a plane. And this part just made me wonder,  Heard’s lawyers couldn’t find a single person on an airplane to corroborate a story of other passengers being loud and obnoxious?

I’m surprised Channel 4 could release a documentary like this so long after the fact and just…completely fail at its basic thesis of suggesting that social media made this a watershed moment for the triumph of the patriarchy over facts. Depp Vs. Heard simply isn’t presenting enough facts of its own to credibly claim that social media got it wrong. Where streamers look at photos of a house with blood and glass everywhere and try to relate it to the stories told by the star witnesses, Depp Vs. Heard refuses to make any kind of comment at all.

Depp Vs. Heard is even lacking in very basic context. One screen of subtitled facts quibbles that Heard was not technically lying when she used pledge and donate as synonyms, and that she did give some (but nowhere near all) of her divorce settlement money to charity. But Depp Vs. Heard neglects to note that ACLU, which received far more money and still hasn’t received all of it, also vouched for the Washington Post opinion piece Heard wrote that set off the whole lawsuit in the first place. It never remotely discusses so much critical information like thisl.

As a postscript, Depp Vs. Heard might be trying to ask the question, what did we learn in the long run from the trial? Well, let’s face it. Not much. For all the hype it generated last year, I barely even remembered the trial had happened at all until I received about this docuseries appearing on Netflix. #MeToo has had a lot of problems since Heard made her initial allegations, and the movement was in a rough place long before the trial started

But the bigger damage eard did to #MeToo wasn’t in losing the trial. It was in helping to promote the idea that evidence shouldn’t matter in regard to accusations. And this was the real reason she lost. It’s not a matter of Heard definitely having been the abuser all along, it was that her lawyers assumed this was an obviously preposterous position and were completely unprepared to litigate against it. Depp Vs. Heard is continuing that trend, doubling down on an argument that’s already a proven loser.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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