Timed serendipitously with the sudden collapse of Britain’s 168-year-old gossip rag News Of The World, Errol Morris’ Tabloid reveals, among many other things, the fierce, unscrupulous reporting that goes on at competing publications—in this case, Britain’s Daily Mirror and Daily Express. In spite of its title, this gossip war isn’t Tabloid’s subject, but it does underline a long-running theme in Morris’ work about the elusive, subjective, sometimes unknowable nature of the truth. In response to Joyce McKinney and the “case of the manacled Mormon,” a sensational story that gripped the country in the late ’70s, the Mirror and the Express took vastly different tacks on the same story, informed entirely by their access to McKinney. When the dust settled, some sordid truths about McKinney’s bizarre story were uncovered, but other, essential details remained in dispute, with the net effect of journalism confusing and obfuscating much more than it revealed.
A departure, at least superficially, from the somber political inquiry of Morris’ last two documentaries, The Fog Of War and Standard Operating Procedure, Tabloid spins one hell of a yarn, following the twists and turns of a story that understandably captivated a nation. Like a more fleshed-out version of one of Morris’ First Person portraits, the film gives McKinney a broad forum to tell her side while also bringing out whatever journalists and co-conspirators are still alive and willing to go on record. A former beauty queen from Wyoming, McKinney became infatuated with Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon in Utah whose mother (and church) wanted her out of his life. When Anderson left for England to fulfill his duties as a missionary, McKinney and a now-deceased friend tracked him down, kidnapped him from the church steps, and took him to a “love cottage” for a brief “honeymoon.” What happened in that love cottage is under dispute: The church claimed rape, while McKinney claimed otherwise—as she colorfully puts it here, such a crime would be akin to “putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.”
McKinney may well be a madwoman, but Morris connects so deeply to her obsessions that the film’s tone never seems exploitative or mocking. Mostly, it’s just endlessly curious in the familiar Morris way: curious about another in his career-long gallery of eccentrics, curious about British tabloid culture, and curious about how radically stories are distorted, both by outlets looking for an angle and by individuals who reserve their greatest deceits for themselves. Tabloid is tonally removed from something like The Fog Of War, but in the end, McKinney and Fog subject Robert McNamara are each trying to control narratives that are out of their hands and have a complicated relationship to the truth.