What Netflix’s Depp v. Heard Documentary Gets Wrong

Netflix's latest docuseries about the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial is mostly objective but still requires context.

Amber Heard seen on a cellphone in Netflix's Depp v. Heard.
Photo: Netflix

Depp v. Heard, Netflix‘s latest docuseries about the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial falls victim to a common documentarian fallacy. It mistakes editorial balance for truth.

In an interview with Variety, Depp v. Heard director Emma Cooper describes her approach to the series thusly: “My intention, right from the start, was to make a cogent and interesting reflection of what happened without using interviews or experts.”

The director then goes on to report that she’s encouraged by the split reaction she’s received from both Depp and Heard supporters, saying: “You know, it’s a balanced level of hate. I pride myself that it tends to be very 50/50.”

Cooper can be forgiven for interpreting divisiveness as success. We live in divisive times, after all, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the case of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

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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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Additionally, since this is a case that seems to encourage partisan participation on either side, it might be useful clarify where the author of this piece falls. Mostly I’m frustrated with the whole thing. Despite being in literal entertainment journalism, I don’t believe any of this is really our business. Having said that, I’m confused as to how two different trials could come to such vastly different conclusions and I think it’s more likely than not that Amber Heard was a victim of domestic abuse.

Johnny Depp’s U.K. Trial Provides Crucial Context

Depp v. Heard‘s biggest omission is undoubtedly the results of the first defamation trial in the U.K. involving Johnny Depp, and it’s a particularly curious one given the docuseries’ British Channel 4 origins. While the series’ first episode does mention the case, it doesn’t delve too far into it, robbing its viewers of some very important context.

Before the eventual Depp v. Heard trial, Depp sued British tabloid The Sun in 2018 for libel after the newspaper referred to him as a “wife-beater” in an article. When the case Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd went to trial in 2020, The Sun had to prove that the term “wife-beater” was accurate to avoid liability. The newspaper was ultimately successful in doing so, with the judge (“Mr Justice Nicol,” in the style of British courts) determining that 12 of the 14 accusations were proved “on the balance of probability.”

The significance of this case didn’t lie in just the result but in the location in which that the result was determined. Libel laws are infamously stricter in the United Kingdom and it is usually far easier for plaintiffs to prove damages than in the U.S. and other similar countries. In fact, Great Britain has been dubbed a destination for “libel tourism” in the past. Even though the Commonwealth of Virginia (some U.S. states are too hipster to refer to themselves as “states”) is considered an easier spot to win defamation cases in the U.S., it still isn’t as permissive as the U.K.

The fact that Depp failed to convince a British judge that “wife-beater” was libel but was able to convince an American jury that Heard’s op-ed was defamatory is one of the more curious aspects of this whole saga.

Astroturfed Johnny Depp Support Was Real

In its third and final episode, Depp v. Heard briefly addresses a curious aspect of Johnny Depp’s overwhelming online support. The docuseries includes audio from several podcasters speculating about Depp’s defense team purchasing online bots to astroturf support for the actor. (“Astroturfing” is a term that refers to “the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public.”)

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Later, a TikTok user @drewmtillman presents evidence of bots in the comment section of a TikTok post featuring Heard’s lawyer Elaine Charlton Bredehoft. This is a prime example of Depp v. Heard‘s agnostic view of the case working against it. By ceding this revelation to podcasters and TikTok-ers, it suggests that the use of media manipulation tactics from one side is up for interpretation. In reality, it was not.

Reporting from Vice suggests that conservative media outlet The Daily Wire spent somewhere between $35,000 and $47,000 promoting misinformation about the Depp v. Heard case through Facebook and other social media channels. One such article the site promoted was  “The Attempted Character Assassination of Johnny Depp,” which misrepresents several aspects of the case including the results of the U.K. trial.

The majority of online support for Depp was almost certainly authentic and not solely the response from bots or bad-faith actors. But the goal of astroturfing often isn’t to manufacture support or dissent for a given topic but to influence it and grow it. Given the fact that this case was very public and its jurors were not sequestered (though they were instructed to avoid media), it’s important to clarify that the astroturfing here was very much real.

The Unsealed Documents Are Telling

Many trials in the American justice system exclude evidence that the presiding judge has decided to deem inadmissible due to it being irrelevant to the case, overly prejudice to one party, or just plain inaccurate. But as Depp v. Heard notes, this trial had an unusually high number of documents barred from being entered into evidence. What Depp v. Heard doesn’t fully dive into, however, is what those documents say exactly.

As analyzed by The Cut, the more than 6,000 pages of evidence unsealed after the case contain a wide trove of information. Some items include: a metadata expert believing Depp had submitted manipulated photo and audio evidence, several unsavory text messages, the fact that Heard’s attorneys encouraged her to go after a bigger divorce settlement, and Depp claiming he was not alleging harm “based on a specific physical or mental injury.”

Undoubtedly the biggest piece of evidence omitted though is Depp’s former assistant Stephen Deuters’ text messages to Heard. Deuters supposedly texted Heard after the incident on the plane from Boston to Los Angeles briefly detailed in the trial in which Depp reacted poorly to a mixture of alcohol and roxycodone. The texts make explicit mention of Depp kicking Heard. Virginia trial Judge Azcarate ruled them inadmissible as “hearsay.”

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Deuters would claim to TMZ in 2016 that images of the texts were altered. But in an email to USA Today, Heard’s attorney Bredehoft said “Stephen Deuters challenged the validity of the text messages in the U.K. proceedings, but when presented with the forensic evidence verifying the validity, Depp withdrew his objection on the basis of validity.”

Who Won The Amber Heard and Johnny Depp Trial?

So this is the portion of the article where you expect me to say “nobody” won this trial because of the way we all degraded ourselves as part of the social media circus. Well, you’d only be half right there. While humankind certainly didn’t represent itself with class and dignity when following this trial, it’s important to remember that it did have a definitive winner: John Christopher Depp II.

Depp v. Heard reveals how Depp ultimately won out in this case and the subsequent reaction from his supporters. It also covers the missteps from Heard’s defense team including the makeup incident, the ill-fated Kate Moss mention, and her perceived-to-be-contrived demeanor. But those are all things any casual follower of the Depp/Heard trial would know going in. The docuseries answers who won and how they won, but it doesn’t even attempt to articulate why they won or whether they deserved to.

Based on cultural relevance of this case and all the information we have on hand, we deserve to one day see a documentary that tackles those questions as well.

All three episodes of Depp v. Heard are available to stream on Netflix now.