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Peacock's Stormy Daniels Documentary Is a Bummer in Every Sense of the Word

A violation of journalistic ethics mars an already tragic story about Daniels' protracted legal battle with Donald Trump.
  • Stormy Daniels in Stormy (Photo: Peacock)
    Stormy Daniels in Stormy (Photo: Peacock)

    Over the past five years, adult film star Stormy Daniels has been hailed as a resistance icon for her willingness to stand up to former President Donald Trump, but Peacock's new documentary doesn't mistake her story for anything but a tragedy. Viewers hoping for an inspirational tale about the importance of speaking truth to power should look elsewhere: Directed by Sarah Gibson, Stormy makes the case that Daniels' life has been destroyed by her protracted legal battle with Trump. It's a fight Daniels never asked for, but can't escape, particularly now that Trump has been indicted for allegedly paying her $130,000 in hush money weeks before the 2016 election. (Trump pleaded not guilty to all 34 felony counts of falsifying business records; the trial is scheduled to begin April 15.)

    For those who memory-holed the major developments in the case, Stormy offers an efficient recap of the alleged sexual encounter between Daniels and Trump (Daniels claims they had consensual sex once in 2006, though she wasn't enthusiastic about it); the circumstances surrounding the 2016 payment; and the Wall Street Journal's bombshell report about the agreement, which led to a guilty plea from Michael Cohen, Trump's former attorney and fixer, in August 2018. Hardly any of this is new information — Daniels published a book about her experience in 2018, and she became a ubiquitous figure on the cable news circuit — but the documentary's value rests in Daniels' candid reaction to the media frenzy, both in the moment and years after the fact.

    Throughout Stormy — which includes footage shot from 2018 to 2023 — Daniels, a registered Republican from rural Louisiana, expresses her surprise at her newfound status as a liberal hero. The film's most interesting moments see her wrestling with that responsibility. "I wasn't trying to be a champion for #MeToo," she says. "Originally, I just did this for purely f*cking selfish reasons. I wanted to stand up for myself, to save my own ass, not everyone else's." Her only goal in suing Trump was to clear her name, not, as her right-wing critics (and many of her champions) believe, to bring down the president, profit off the scandal, or further her career.

    But Daniels' "crusade," as her then-husband Glen Crain called it, had a devastating impact on her personal life. The scandal eroded trust between Daniels and Crain, who didn't know she and Trump had sex in 2006 until the news broke, and put their daughter at risk; as threats from Trump-world and the media attention escalated, Daniels became so afraid for her daughter's life that she felt it was safer to remain on the road between stops on her Make America Horny Again tour than go home. In one particularly sad scene, a desperate Daniels offers to give Crain full custody of their daughter if he agrees to pursue a private, out-of-court divorce. "I'm only doing that, not because I don't want her, but because I want to keep her safe," she says through sobs.

    As time passes and Daniels' financial situation worsens — the result of former attorney Michael Avenatti stealing from her and federal judges requiring her to pay Trump's legal fees in their defamation dispute — despair sets in. There are no moral victories to be found here: The sad reality is that Daniels' career has come to a screeching halt, while Trump continues to face no consequences for his alleged crimes and may very well win the 2024 presidential election. "Now it's just like, this is just pointless. I have no hope, at all, anymore," says Daniels.

    By now, Daniels has invested so much time and money that she "won't give up" the fight altogether, but she's no longer operating under the impression that the justice system will protect her. Her closing message reflects the documentary's woeful tone: "I don't know if I'm so much a warrior now as out of f*cks, man," she says. "I'm telling the truth, and I kind of don't even know if it matters."

    But Stormy isn't just a bummer on a thematic level — it also proves disheartening from an ethical perspective. The documentary relies primarily on footage filmed by journalist Denver Nicks, who was given unprecedented access to Daniels during the height of the scandal in 2018 and 2019. Nicks, who often appears on camera, was on hand for every moment, from public appearances on Saturday Night Live and 60 Minutes to more intimate conversations, including one in which Daniels dictates a last will and testament, should anything happen to her. (At the time, Daniels believed she was being followed, and she was "completely sure that [she] was going to die.")

    Later, as Crain explains what went wrong in their marriage, he accuses Daniels of "infidelity" — at which point Stormy reveals that Daniels and Nicks "briefly became romantically involved" during filming. The disclosure appears as text superimposed over a shot of Daniels sleeping on Nicks' chest; as he moves the camera over his face, he smiles contentedly before panning back to Daniels.

    Gibson affords this massive breach of journalistic code just the one sentence, and neither Daniels nor Nicks, who sits for a present-day interview, are asked to elaborate further. Just as quickly as the affair is mentioned, it's dismissed, as if it isn't at all relevant to a story about a woman brought low by powerful men she trusted and the misogynistic system designed to prop them up.

    It's possible to see the logic that went into Gibson's decision to gloss over the relationship between Nicks and Daniels. Stormy is careful not to sensationalize its subject's story, as the media has done for years, and focusing on the affair would undermine that effort, as the tawdry headline would undoubtedly overshadow the film's more salient points. On the other hand, ignoring the affair altogether would be irresponsible, both from a journalistic perspective and because Crain explicitly cites it as a deciding factor in the couple's divorce. The title card seems to be the compromise between the two, a way to address the controversy without dwelling on it.

    In this case, however, such a brief mention only prompts additional questions about the hand-off between Nicks (who's credited as a consulting producer) and Gibson's team, which also includes veteran documentarian Erin Lee Carr as a producer. At what point did Nicks take a step back — and perhaps more importantly, why? What footage can be directly attributed to Gibson's team? How did Gibson and Carr (not to mention Daniels) feel about using footage recorded in such an unethical manner? These questions aren't just left unanswered, but are unacknowledged altogether, creating the impression that Stormy is deliberately leaving out important aspects of this story.

    The decision not to clarify the transition between Nicks and Gibson is particularly disappointing given the documentary's emphasis on Daniels' moral courage in the face of extreme adversity. (In a recent interview, Gibson and Carr were similarly vague, declining to mention Nicks by name and downplaying his involvement as the filmmaker behind the bulk of the footage included in the film.) Ultimately, Stormy is only willing to engage with matters of right and wrong as they relate to the hush-money case, not the film itself, leaving viewers with an incomplete — and perhaps even dishonest — portrait of an adult film star whose name is forever inscribed in the annals of American political history.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Stormy Daniels, Peacock, Stormy, Donald Trump, Erin Lee Carr, Sarah Gibson