Director : Errol Morris
Screenplay : Errol Morris
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Piped directly into theaters from the Department of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Errol Morris’s fascinating new documentary Tabloid is almost frighteningly well timed, arriving on the heels of the unexpected smash success on Broadway of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s satirical musical romp Book of Mormon, the media-saturated storm of controversy surrounding the Casey Anthony trial and verdict, and the arguably larger storm brewing around the still evolving phone-hacking scandal that has buried one British tabloid and is threatening to topple much more. Heady stuff for a documentary that entertainingly and sometimes presciently rehashes the bizarro story of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming World who became an instant celebrity in 1977 when she was accused of kidnapping her fiancée, a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, chaining him to a bed for three days in the English countryside, and repeatedly raping him. At least, that’s what the authorities would like you to believe. As Miss McKinney explains in detail in the film, she was just trying to rescue the love of her life from a repressive, brain-washing cult.
In fact, nearly half of the film is given over to Morris’s unprecedented interview with McKinney, which marks the first time she has ever given a full account of her side of the story. Don’t feel bad if you’re drawn into her perspective: Morris has clearly found a natural camera subject, and McKinney commandeers the screen with her natural charisma and wide range of expression (not surprisingly, she is still proud of the performance she gave in front of the British court back in 1977; “Thank the Lord for drama school!” she laughs). Throughout the film, McKinney presents herself from numerous perspectives: lovestruck innocent, victim of circumstance, misunderstood celebrity, and brilliant schemer (she happily notes that she has a 168 IQ), which Morris underscores with a plethora of archival photographs and video, including gauzy, soft-focus footage of McKinney reading aloud from her saccharine unpublished memoir A Very Special Love Story.
When the story first broke, the competing British tabloids The Sun and The Daily Mirror had a field day with it, amping up the most salacious details to even more ludicrous proportions. To understand that side of the story, Morris interviews two veteran reporters, one from each daily, to discuss his involvement. They are both unapologetic (if not downright elated) about their involvement in what came to be known as the “Manacled Mormon” story, although one of them is quite candid in admitting that McKinney used him and his tabloid to sell her celebrity persona. Also on camera is Jackson Shaw, the pilot that McKinney hired to fly her and a lovestruck accomplice to England to find Kirk, and Troy Williams, a former Mormon missionary who is more than happy to shed some light on the inner workings of the Mormon church. One wishes, however, that Morris had found a few more interview subjects to shed some led on the undeniably weird events and flesh out some of the subtext; the limited talking heads fits the film’s concise running time, but at times feels a bit lazy and one-sided (Mormons are sure to balk that their religion is discussed only by McKinney and a church drop-out with an obvious axe to grind).
Morris, one of the most dexterous of documentarians, has staked his career on a combination of eccentric portraiture (what he calls “Completely Whacked Out”) and the exploration of politics and power (what he calls “Politically Concerned”). Tabloid, with its outrageous subject matter and often sarcastic visual punctuation of old movie clips, tabloid-style headlines, and creepy shots from a crudely animated educational film about Mormonism, fits most comfortably into the former category, although there is a strong political subtext brewing throughout, as the very nature of the subject matter forces us to contend with the nature of “Truth” and how mediated stories are manipulated, spun, and in some cases wholly fabricated.
What is so compelling about Tabloid is the manner in which it allows us to see McKinney’s story from multiple perspectives without ever leaning one way or the other (don’t expect to walk out of the theater confident of what actually happened in the English countryside back in 1977). For a good stretch of the film, McKinney’s version of the events dominates, and she makes it sound almost entirely convincing that she would go to such extremes to track Kirk down and snatch him away from the Mormon Church, which she saw as a cult that was determined to brainwash him and turn him into someone else. However, the other interview subjects, particularly the two tabloid journalists, see things differently, and they paint much different, much less flattering portraits of McKinney. Unfortunately, Morris does not press McKinney enough in the interview, particularly after the revelation that she had been working as a nude model and escort, a chapter in her life that she barely acknowledges and instead rehashes an accusation that The Sun put a doctored nude photo of her on their front page, something to which they admitted a long time ago.
That is but a small disappointment in an otherwise magnificently unsettling and funny-sad portrait of the arguably sick relationships that are forged between celebrities, the media, and their audiences. There are, of course, more questions than answers at the end, especially when we learn that so much evidence and documentation, including hundreds of pictures of McKinney at her dirtiest and a truck’s worth of papers she was archiving for a book project, have mysteriously disappeared. Yet, everyone loves a good story, and the one that swirled around Joyce McKinney in 1977 is about as good as it gets (it is only icing on the cake that she popped back into the headlines in 2008 when she paid a Korean scientist to clone her beloved service dog Booger). As many commentators have pointed out, the “Manacled Mormon” story has everything you could possibly want in a scandal: a beautiful and potentially delusional protagonist, sex, religion, and crime. All of that is present in Tabloid, and Morris works on our fascination with the seedy details without ever resorting to judgment or condemnation. Like all of Morris’s documentaries, Tabloid is a portrait, not an op-ed piece, and what we take away from it--good, bad, and/or ugly--is entirely our own.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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