What ‘Depp v. Heard’ Doc Teaches Us About the Moment We’re Living In
For a few weeks in 2022, the world’s attention fell on a courtroom in Fairfax County, Virginia. I know the area around the courthouse well: I lived and worked nearby when I was a graduate student. By the time the trial was actually taking place, I was living just a few miles away in Centreville.
It felt surreal to turn on the news in those days and see reporters, spectators, and fans spanning a road I had driven down countless times before. What was happening in that courtroom was no ordinary trial, and we are still witnessing the effects it had on the careers of the two stars at the heart of it, and on society. This was the defamation trial against actress Amber Heard by her ex-husband, actor Johnny Depp.
In a world used to staying in and watching TV as a result of a global pandemic, it became as instantly captivating as Tiger King. As the largest war in Europe since 1945 was playing out in Ukraine half a world away, here was a distraction, full of gossip, hearsay, intrigue, allegations of fecal mischief, and the reputation of two major Hollywood stars on the line.
Tiger King is an apt comparison to the new documentary from Netflix simply titled Depp v. Heard which recounts the case and trial in painstaking detail. Over the course of three episodes, this documentary hopes to recapture what made the trial such a zeitgeist-capturing one. With only a little over a year passing since the end and result of the trial, the gift of hindsight allows further examination that wouldn’t have been possible while it was unfolding.
The comprehensive facts of the case are put on full display in the documentary. The media coverage of the trial, particularly the conversation on social media, is also highlighted extensively. Some believe that social media actually helped Johnny Depp, who ultimately ended up winning the lawsuit. Heard was found liable in all three matters of defamation, and Depp was found liable for one out of the three matters in her countersuit.
In the era of TikTok, here came its equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial: a moment where cameras are allowed in the courtroom, and everyone is riveted by a major trial with salacious details involving a big celebrity. But in a sign of what has changed in the subsequent years, clips from the trial went viral, and in some cases, were instantly memeified. The conversation continued even after the trial had ended, thanks to YouTubers and everyone from vetted news journalists to your random acquaintance on Facebook seemingly having something to say about it.
This was because the case had details and soap opera theatrics that would make even the most hardened legal scholar salivate. Did Amber Heard actually give the money she promised to the ACLU and the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital? Wait, just how much of a role did Depp’s infamous “wino forever,” formerly “Winona forever,” tattoo have to play in the unfolding events? Oh no, is Elon Musk involved somehow? And then there was the question of who actually pooped the bed.
It was considered one of the major court cases of the #MeToo era. Heard had written an op-ed for The Washington Post that she had become a “public figure representing domestic abuse” as a fellow victim herself. This just about ruined Johnny Depp’s reputation in Hollywood, and he was essentially fired from the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Depp then moved to sue Heard for defamation in Virginia, as the printing offices of The Washington Post are in Fairfax. What followed were weeks of accusations, both Depp and Heard taking the stand, their respective personal character and conduct being criticized, and simple words or moments going viral. An example was Depp’s mere confused, sardonic repetition of “mega-pint” after being asked about a supposed goblet he drank wine out of.
The court case in Fairfax was only the most visible defamation case, as Depp had also sued a British tabloid for claiming that he was a “wife-beater.” The discrepancy between the two cases, and how one informed the legal strategy for the other, is something the documentary does not shy away from.
The “checkmate” moment for Depp’s legal team is when Heard mentions Depp’s ex, model Kate Moss, and the violence that he allegedly committed against her. When Moss is called to the stand, she swears under oath that Depp was never physically abusive to her, seemingly torpedoing a major pillar of Heard’s case.
Meanwhile, pandemonium was on the streets outside the courthouse, where fans would constantly cheer Depp as his black SUV arrived at court and would subsequently boo Amber Heard as she moved in and out of the courthouse. In these hyper-partisan times, here was yet another dividing line. You were either on Team Johnny or Team Amber, and there was no in-between despite the complexities and overtones of the entire case. Pictures went viral of tip jars with “Johnny” and “Amber” written on them, asking customers to tip according to whose side they were on. The tip jars always seemed to favor Depp.
The jury made its decision after spending far more time deliberating about the case than I certainly ever would have, so I feel unqualified to speak about the actual truth of the case. Was Amber Heard lying? Was Johnny Depp? In either case, both of them sound like toxic, abusive people. I think the failure of their marriage brought out very dark and ugly sides of both of them. Separation from a partner can be intense and brutal even if one is out of the limelight, but their celebrity nature adds a level of stress and voyeurism into their personal lives that most of us cannot even comprehend.
The case ultimately boiled down to a literal “he said, she said,” a reality TV-esque spectacle deprived of nuance played out in front of the entire world. People speculate whether Depp and/or Heard can return to their careers and what that will eventually look like. Truthfully, I think they’ve both been tarnished by the case too much to have that sort of immediate rebound that either of them desires.
But this case, as much as it was about the dissolution of a marriage and of a couple’s relationship, was also about so much more. It had the baggage of the entire #MeToo era, as well as hurricane-force winds of debate playing out on the Internet. I’m not entirely comfortable with the precedent that it sets, even for two people as much in the public spotlight as two major Hollywood superstars.
Yet, the case also feels very of this time, where despite all that’s going on, we seek the salacious distraction, theatrics, and mud-slinging that can only come about in a legal case where the facts are laid bare. Just like in sports or while watching Star Wars, we like rooting for one “team” over another, that one side may be victorious in their opponent’s defeat. However, real life is hardly ever that uncomplicated.
To the Depp v. Heard miniseries’ credit, it explores the nuances of the case far more effectively and also with the added gift of hindsight. But I worry about a future where every major celebrity court case will get its own respective Netflix documentary, where we are forced to relive an entire conversation surrounding a complex legal matter, as toxic as it may be.