Johnny vs Amber – The US Trial, review: A lacklustre look at a case that’s already had too much airtime

·4-min read

“There’s no question that in America we have two systems of justice,” celebrity attorney Lisa Bloom says in the tepid new documentary Johnny vs Amber: The US Trial. “One for the very wealthy and powerful, and one for everybody else.”

She goes on to explain that Johnny Depp has “f*** you money”, which means he can spend millions on an all-star legal team. His ex-wife, the actor Amber Heard, has to “scramble to defend herself”. And the sharp-minded Bloom would know. She made a career representing women against disgraced Hollywood predators like Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly before switching sides. In 2017, it came to light that Bloom was advising Harvey Weinstein – that’s the power of “f*** you money”.

For those of you who might have somehow missed it, Johnny Depp sued former partner Amber Heard for defamation in Virginia state court over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she identified herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”. She did not name Depp, but throughout the couple’s high-profile 2016 divorce, allegations of abuse were reported in the media. Depp largely won the jury trial earlier this summer, with Heard ordered to pay the mega-star over $10m – a mere drop in the bucket of “f*** you money”.

Johnny vs Amber: The US Trial is a hasty two-part Discovery+ documentary that literally takes the form of a “he said, she said”. In the first hour, Depp’s legal team, who granted the doc’s camera crew access to their hotel war room, lay out their trial strategy. They also wax about the fundamental importance of “Johnny” – never “my client” or even “Mr Depp” but always the cloyingly over-personal “Johnny” instead – clearing his name. In the second hour, the series attempts to retell the story from Heard’s side, though her legal team declined to participate. Instead of people who know her well, Heard gets talking heads such as Bloom doing reputation rehab.

If the title and format seem familiar, it’s because the same production team put out another Johnny vs Amber series in 2021. That film covered the UK lawsuit Depp brought against The Sun over a headline calling him a “wife-beater” – a trial the actor lost. The “sequel” mostly consists of footage from the televised US trial, none of which will surprise people who followed it closely or, honestly, even at a distance. Depp’s profane tweets and emails to famous friends such as Elton John and Paul Bettany were on the front page of the internet only a few months ago. And for all the documentary crew’s behind-the-scenes access, little that happens there is newsworthy. We get a glimpse of Depp’s high-powered attorney Camille Vasquez persuading Kate Moss to testify on his behalf. Vasquez and her colleagues’ belief in Depp’s innocence never wavers, but then again, they know better than anyone that this trial – like the one in the UK – won’t end with the verdict.

It’s the second hour of the doc, which focuses on Heard’s story, that proves faintly more insightful. Without hours of war room footage, filmmakers focus on the media circus surrounding the trial, even bringing in some of the most followed trial Instagrammers for interviews. (It’s not about being “obsessively” detail-oriented, says Jessica Reed Kraus, whose account has a million followers. “It’s really about gossip.”) Johnny vs Amber: Part 2 isn’t so much biased as toothless. It’s also light on factual information, like, for example, the definition of “defamation” or even a quick rundown of what happened in the UK. I suppose you could say the documentary’s not “obsessively” detail-oriented.

Supporters standing outside the US trial in Fairfax, Virginia, in May 2022 (Getty)
Supporters standing outside the US trial in Fairfax, Virginia, in May 2022 (Getty)

“You don’t want to necessarily give all the answers to the jury,” Vasquez tells the camera by way of describing what makes a good case. “You want them to come to their own conclusions.” Her point is that the real truth isn’t as compelling as the truth you tell yourself. It works as a trial strategy, clearly, but also as a prism for understanding this glossy doc. Johnny vs Amber doesn’t adopt its adversarial framework in the hopes of discovering what really happened, but to make sure everyone’s side is at least a little heard. No matter your allegiance, the series gives you just enough information to come to the conclusion you’d probably already reached.

‘Johnny vs Amber: The US Trial’ will be available on discovery+ from Tuesday 20 September