You'd be forgiven for thinking that Errol Morris makes nothing but extremely serious documentaries. He's best known for Standard Operating Procedure, his 2008 film about Abu Ghraib, and The Fog of War, the tremendous 2003 movie about Robert McNamara. He's also responsible for The Thin Blue Line, a movie that literally solved a mystery, caught a criminal and saved an innocent man from Death Row.
But Morris has also made some terribly funny films. Vernon, Florida is hysterical, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is strange and wonderful and there's humor to be found in Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. All of these have plenty in common with Morris' latest picture, Tabloid, which examines the story of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming with an IQ of 168, who was accused of traveling to England to kidnap and rape a male Mormon missionary back in the mid-'70s, and the media coverage the incident received.
Wait. She was accused of kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary? Yeah, that's out there. McKinney, who sits for a series of lengthy interviews, is clearly loopy, a woman with no filter whatsoever who's led a strange life and whose perception of herself is suspect. Yes, she did travel to England with the sole intent to deprogram and deflower Kurt Anderson, a young Mormon with whom she'd been on a couple of dates and become intensely obsessed.
McKinney is more than willing to admit taking Anderson to a house against his will, tying him to the bed, ripping off his Mormon underpants and having sex with him. But did she actually rape him? That's what the papers said at the time, and two of the reporters who followed the case, Peter Tory and Kent Gavin, explain how their papers spun the story to maximize the salaciousness of it.
Anderson—who declined to be interviewed for the film—calls it rape, but a number of other people think the truth is closer to McKinney's story of consensual sex, suggesting that the whole abduction-and-rape narrative was created by Anderson once the deed had been done and he'd had second thoughts. What really happened? The truth is probably somewhere in between, and that's the point Morris is trying to make.In many ways, Morris never sets out to find the real truth of the story, because he's more interested in the differences between McKinney's version and everyone else's, especially the media's. Occasionally, he'll put a word up on the screen, which will make you think about what you're watching and, in all likelihood, distrust it. Morris rarely interjects himself into the interviews, but when he does, it's usually because he has a question he's just bursting to ask, and more often than not, it's the same question the audience wants to know the answer to.
McKinney makes for a fascinating subject who's just dying to have her story told, and the Manacled Mormon is not the only tabloid-worthy experience of her life, which includes the cloning of a dog named Booger.
Make no mistake, Tabloid is far lighter than any of the work Morris has done recently, and in that sense, it's a bit of a letdown. That said, the best marketing possible for Morris' movie is the monstrous scandal going down right now with Rupert Murdoch and News of the World. The folks pushing Tabloid couldn't have wished for better timing.
Morris doesn't delve into the insidiousness of tabloid journalism as an industry as much as he simply looks at it through the lens of this one insanely strange event. Still, every time we decide the media has gone too far, it's worth remembering that tabloid journalism has probably gone there before.
Sure, Tabloid—opening Friday, July 22 at La Jolla Village Cinemas—is slight, but so are People and Star, and that doesn't stop you from at least glancing at their headlines while you're waiting to pay for your groceries.