There are true stories that make good movies and then true stories that are so rife with implausibility that they make terrible movies, and in Tabloid, masterful, Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris has taken the latter and made an incredibly entertaining nonfiction film with all the wily narrative surprise of a tawdry B-movie run amok. A jaw-dropping, wonderfully bonkers look back at one of the stranger gossip-rag human interest tales of the 1970s, Tabloid is a streamlined treat that offers up a crafty, academic case-study overview of both romantic obsession and journalistic overreach, all without sacrificing for a moment any of the wonky side-street particulars that make the unlikely story so deliciously engaging.
Morris’ film focuses on Joyce McKinney, a former North Carolina beauty queen who in the 1970s moved to Utah and fell in love with Kirk Anderson. When Anderson, a devout Mormon, left for the United Kingdom on his church-mandated, two-year mission, McKinney became convinced that the man of her dreams had been indoctrinated into a cult. So, in a most peculiar way, she focused her attention on tracking him down and setting him free. Hiring a prop-plane pilot and a personal bodyguard for accompaniment, the lively blonde flew from California (where she was living by that time) to England, determined to pry her would-be husband from the oppressive clutches of the Mormon church. What ensued — decades before Paris Hilton and the Kardashian sisters — was a surreal blooming of celebrity for McKinney, and a tabloid tug-of-war in which two competing papers would paint very different portraits of her innocence, past and motivations. In its third and final act, Tabloid pivots again, jumping forward in time. Those thinking McKinney’s story couldn’t get any weirder have a surprise, involving the attempted cloning of her beloved dog, Booger.
A checklist of the Tabloid‘s ingredients — infatuation! sex! trans-Atlantic intrigue and escape! kidnapping! self-delusion! Mormonism! bondage! pay-to-play journalism! identification by dogs! — comes across as a shopping list for two or three labyrinthine scandals, not merely one, and in their insane, commingled glory they’re almost all as timely today as ever, especially in the wake of the recent phone hacking charges against Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and the endless, cable news loop reportage of Casey Anthony’s private life during the trial over the death of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. A good part of Morris’ film is about the disruptive and transformative power of libidinal surge, yes — how love can make one see what they wish to see. But Tabloid is also very much about journalistic ethics, both past and present, how the media can choose to frame a narrative or cast a character, and then pursue doggedly confirmatory evidence to support that vision.
Those familiar with The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure will recognize Morris’ use of his patented off-camera interview machine, which he calls the “Interrotron.” Though he relies only a small, very trimmed and intimate roster of interviewees, the director gives Tabloid a proper dollop of scope via smart use of archive material and re-purposed media. Competing reporters from the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror, the two papers which served as the main conduits of information on the case to a hungry British public, offer up their blow-by-blow reminiscences of the case, which are by turns fascinating, hilarious and slightly unnerving.
The hyper-articulate, decidedly strange McKinney, though, is of course the chief attraction. Somewhere in the gulf between her account of events, crimes with which she was charged, and stories that subsequently came out in the tabloids, there is the real story of what happened in 1978. But Morris delights in this muddy ambiguity, and makes this point besides: what is a definitive and objective truth if one or more parties still never concedes to it? While it is about love, obsession, self-delusion, journalistic ethics, the gulf between sexual need and religious stricture, and many more things, Tabloid is, in the biggest sense, a fascinating story about the sometimes slippery and illusory nature of truth, especially as it relates to matters of interpersonal connection. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Sundance Select/Moxie Pictures, R, 88 minutes)