Review: ‘Tabloid’

"It’s a strange story, Tabloid tells, and I cannot imagine a single better way of telling it."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The time has come for a dark and shameful confession. You see, there are a lot of movies in the world. Nobody can claim to have seen them all, and lord knows I certainly haven’t. But while I don’t think I’m going to catch much hell for missing… oh, say, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas… I am legitimately embarrassed to admit that Tabloid is my first Errol Morris movie. If you don’t know who Errol Morris is, then my entire confession is wasted on you. But if you’re a fan of one of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians, the director of The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Standard Operating Procedure, the odds are that I am now dead to you. But hey, we all gotta start somewhere.

Tabloid tells the story of former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney, who in the 1970’s followed her Mormon boyfriend to England and tried to deprogram him from that “cult” by whisking him away to a cottage and making love to him whilst he was tied to a bed. Naturally, some took exception to this, and McKinney was arrested and sent to jail for several months. The problem with the story is that the victim, Kirk Anderson, doesn’t want to speak up about it, and nobody knows for certain if Joyce’s story is true – that Kirk went with her willingly and only returned to the Mormon church because he felt threatened – or if Joyce McKinney is just a mentally unstable individual who committed a full-fledged act of kidnapping.

The truth is likely somewhere in between, but in Tabloid Errol Morris expertly denies the audience any facts whatsoever until such revelations have the maximum dramatic impact. It’s entirely likely that some members of the audience will remember the “Mormon Sex in Chains” case from 1977, as it was a pop culture phenomenon leading to – you guessed it – heavy tabloid coverage, but to those born after the case, like myself, it’s probably news to them. So discovering twists like prostitution bondage scandals and cloning, of all things, came completely out of left field. It’s a strange story, Tabloid tells, and I cannot imagine a single better way of telling it. Morris captures the mystery, intrigue, sexiness and even the paranoia of it all in a most expert fashion.

I often find myself rejecting most documentaries out of hand. My brain is hardwired to be argumentative, and I tend to dispute “facts” when they are given in an earnest manner, even if I agree with them. Documentaries are often made with a distinct agenda, political, personal or otherwise, and Tabloid avoids this by deftly balancing personal accounts with only occasionally undeniable truths. Morris knows that the reality behind this bizarre situation Joyce McKinney created for herself is completely intangible, and that the search for it – regardless of actual discovery – is the real story here. As such, I see now why Errol Morris is the acclaimed documentarian that he is: he’s able to skirt the clichés of the medium and just tell a compelling story. I am more motivated than ever to seek out his other films.

Tabloid, as more knowledgeable Errol Morris fans have told me, may not be his best work. But it is definitely an exceptional documentary for fans of the medium and those who, like me, often distrust it. I have no qualms about recommending it, which in-and-of-itself for a documentary qualifies as a rave review from this particular film critic. Find it and watch it unfold today.