A new NBC News documentary titled A Marriage on Trial: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and Truth in the Age of Social Media is the latest deep dive into the celebrity defamation trial heard around the world—or seen everywhere on TikTok, more accurately.
It’s been a little over a month since a jury decided that Aquaman actress Amber Heard defamed her ex-husband, Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp, when she referred to herself as “the face of domestic abuse” in a Washington Post op-ed in 2018. Depp was awarded $15 million in damages (receiving $10.35 million due to the state’s punitive cap) and Heard $2 million for a counterclaim she won.
Since that stunning verdict, speculation about the ruling’s impact on future domestic abuse cases and the overall fate of #MeToo has incited fear and anxiety amongst feminists, survivors of abuse, and domestic violence organizations. Much has also been said about the role of social media in the Depp-Heard case and the way videos mocking, manipulating, and reenacting Heard’s testimony became nearly inescapable across social media platforms.
Likewise, the widespread harassment profit campaign against Heard led by Depp’s online army of supporters (and influencers who may not have otherwise cared about the case but were able to off it) has earned comparisons to #Gamergate with a more mainstream audience. Digital writers, many of them women, have done most of the heavy lifting in terms of investigating and editorializing how Heard became the most hated woman online and this phenomenon could affect other high-profile survivors in abuse cases.
Meanwhile, television networks like NBC have gotten in hot water for emracing popular narratives in line with Depp supporters, providing what many have viewed as unethical coverage on Today and jokes about the trial on Saturday Night Livebut seem to slowly be catching up to the more progressive discourse about the case.
That seems to be the goal of A Marriage On Trialwhich aired on NBC News Now on Wednesday night and is available to stream on NBCNews.com and Peacock.
In a swift but impactful 30 minutes, the documentary attempts to frame Heard as a victim of online harassment and outline the disturbing ways an intimate matter between two celebrities became a virtual sport. Talking heads include one of Heard’s attorneys, Elaine Bredehoft; National Coalition Against Domestic Violence CEO Ruth Glenn; People Magazine editor Nigel Smith; American University law professor Jamie Abrams; and NBC News tech and culture reporter Kat Tenbarge. We also get plenty of soundbites from Depp supporters, including TikToker Gia Andreaniwhose obsession with proving Depp’s innocence, which she discusses casually with a journalist, is one of the most jarring parts of the film.
A Marriage on Trial doesn’t have the aggressive point of view of a similar documentary like Framing Britney Spears. The film doesn’t set out to decide whether Heard was wronged by the jury—although Glenn and Bredehoft’s perspectives are notable. Rather, the documentary broadly illustrates the tragedy that occurs when private matters become public theater. Moreover, it highlights the inhumanity of platforms like TikTok and YouTube, where—aside from average users—profit-hungry influencers and toxic celebrity fandoms coalesce.
The first ten minutes of the documentary feels like an introductory course in the facts during and leading up to the defamation trial in Virginia, many of which were either manipulated or completely ignored by social media users. Experts mention the results of Depp’s prior defamation trial against UK tabloid The Sun, which found that he had committed “at least 12 acts of domestic violence including domestic violence, including sexual violence,” as Bredehoft states in the film. Heard’s attorney also brings up notes from Heard’s therapist documenting physical abuse that weren’t allowed to be submitted as evidence.
The social media element of the trial is both equated to the media frenzy surrounding OJ Simpson’s murder trial and framed as a direct consequence of it. Both judges controversially permitted cameras in their courtrooms, allowing these disturbing incidents to be consumed like a “gladiator ceremony,” said Nigel Smith. In the documentary, we see footage of fans waiting outside the courthouse with signs and dressed in Jack Sparrow costumes, and workers giving spectators wristbands to view the trial like a concert.
“The documentary notes the amount of influencers and content creators who weren’t necessarily invested in the trial but saw an opportunity to gain followers and likes by pivoting to content focused on Depp and Heard, which was largely pro-Depp.”
In addition to Depp’s legion of adoring fans, the documentary notes the amount of influencers and content creators who weren’t necessarily invested in the trial but saw an opportunity to gain followers and likes by pivoting to content focused on Depp and Heard, which was largely pro-depp—and why you might have noticed a drop in Depp content on social media immediately following the verdict. Like Framing Britney Spears, A Marriage On Trial shows how there’s always money and clout to be gained from a woman’s suffering and humiliation.
Due to its brief length, A Marriage on Trial is not the most in-depth look into the nature of harassment campaigns on social media nor the psychology of toxic fanbases and the misogyny Depp’s fans harbor, specifically. The way Depp’s supporters have come to develop a strong parasocial relationship with him—mostly through family movies he’s starred in—is explained in a fairly rational tone. Likewise, his fans are portrayed more as naive Disney adults than terrifying zealots.
The kind of tip-toeing you sense from certain participants in the documentary makes its commentary less potent and insightful than some columns written about the trial. Plus, if you’ve already been following the reporting on Heard’s presence on TikTok and other social media sites, you might not learn much by watching this film (although it does hit an emotional nerve whether or not you’ve heard this information before) . Intermediate, it’s a good introduction for people not as attuned to this angle of the trial and obviously for Heard skeptics, who only seem interested in information they can consume in a brief viral video.