Beyond being the most expertly paced documentary of the year, Errol Morris’ Tabloid also has the best timing. What better moment to release a movie about the excesses—and wicked appeal—of Fleet Street scandal peddlers than in the weeks after Rupert Murdoch’s fishwrap empire began to collapse under the weight of its own phone hacks? Tabloid contains plenty of unscrupulous journalism (from the non-Murdoch Daily Mirror and Daily Express, mostly) but, on the whole, its muckrakers are understandably gobsmacked by their seedy subject: Joyce McKinney, the “barking mad” blond American bombshell at the center of Britain’s “manacled Mormon” scandal of 1977. What? You are not familiar with the manacled Mormon scandal? Could I interest you in a story about a former Miss Wyoming who decided she would rid a Church of Latter-Day Saints missionary of his qualms regarding fornication by tying him to her bed? Oh, good.
I shouldn’t spill any more than that—and there is so much more than that—because, for voyeurs like you and me, Tabloid is as much shameless fun as we’re likely to have this year. It just revels in human farce. But I can say that, like all Morris documentaries, it’s about the human capacity for self-deception, and the impossibility of finding truth through images. It often feels like the really danceable B-side to Standard Operating Procedure, his grim and overworked film about the Abu Ghraib photos. This, clearly, is a different class of scandal, but Morris gives it no less careful a treatment. Consider the textual lines flashed in huge letters across the faces of the interviewed subjects. This is the same technique used in another very good doc currently in release, Project Nim, but the philosophical rationale is clearer in Tabloid: These 80-point-font bulletins—“KIDNAPPED,” “SPREAD EAGLE,” “DOO-DOO DIPPER”—literally paper over the actual events, and indeed Morris uses all the stock footage to create a distance from any objective reality.
the while, McKinney stares into the camera, no whit abashed. She speaks
to Morris’ Interrotron (a camera designed so the subject will look the
audience in the eye) with the conviction of a woman long convinced she
is the most adorable and down-to-earth person a Christian soul could
ever hope to meet, really very shy about physical matters but willing to
confide, just between you and her, that she smuggled notes from her
jail cell in her anus. She is Morris’ most persuasive demonstration of
stubbornness in the face of all facts—and he made a movie on Robert
McNamara. By the end of Tabloid, you’re convinced Joyce McKinney is delusional, and that that Mormon boy really should have married her.
91 SEE IT: Tabloid opens Friday at Fox Tower.