It’s difficult not to be cynical about this two-part documentary purporting to tell “the inside story” of the Depp vs Heard trial. It arrives less than four months after Johnny Depp largely won his defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard, which doesn’t leave much room for perspective or indeed editing. Given that news coverage of the trial has already generated a staggering number of social media interactions – more per article than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to one report – do we really need more content for shonky online commentators to feed off? It’s not just a rush job, but one that looks a bit icky.
But actually, Johnny vs Amber: The U.S. Trial is more workmanlike than crudely sensationalist. A follow-up to 2020’s Johnny vs Amber, a previous two-parter about Depp’s failed libel case against The Sun, it adopts the same format: episode one tells the story from Depp’s perspective, then episode two supplies Heard’s side. We’re given only a cursory recap of the earlier trial, which Depp lost when a London High Court judge found that The Sun was entitled to label him a “wife beater” because Heard’s evidence against him was “substantially true”. Instead, we’re plunged straight into this second defamation case held in Fairfax County, Virginia, which centred on a 2018 op-ed Heard wrote for The Washington Post in which she called herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse” without ever mentioning Depp by name.
Only Depp’s legal team has agreed to take part in this documentary, which means Heard’s story is pieced together by various journalists and legal experts who are presumably well informed but by no means “insiders”. One of them is prominent American attorney Lisa Bloom, who has experience working on both sides of abuse cases: she represented three of Bill Cosby’s accusers, then acted as an adviser to Harvey Weinstein when he first faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
The Depp episode has some revealing moments – attorney Camille Vasquez admits that convincing Kate Moss to testify on her client’s behalf was no foregone conclusion – but mostly focuses on legal strategy. Given that Heard was found liable in all three matters of defamation raised by Depp, and won just one of her three counterclaims, it’s not hard to see why his lawyers were happy to take part. At one point we literally see another Depp attorney, Benjamin G. Chew, congratulate Vasquez on her “masterful cross-examination of Amber”.
Episode two is more compelling because the makers are forced to take a step back. There’s a serviceable exploration of the way Depp won in “the court of public opinion” before he won the actual case, but it’s a shame the episode doesn’t drill down further into the appalling misogyny Heard encountered on social media. Still, there’s at least a sad and savage indictment of the online industry that grew up around the trial: Jessica Reed Kraus, an internet commentator who covered it extensively, admits her approach is “less detail-oriented” than traditional journalism and “really about gossip”. Overall, this two-parter is an adequate recap of Depp vs Heard with flashes of insight, but it never really manages to justify its own existence.
‘Johnny vs Amber’: The U.S. Trial’ streams on Discovery+ from September 20