Tabloid: nothing but the truth or something like it

by Mark Burger

Errol Morris’ latest documentary, Tabloid , which opens Friday, is a textbook example of how truth — or some variation thereof — is stranger than fiction.

The principal character here is Joyce McKinney, a beauty queen who found some measure of fame — and infamy — when she traveled to England in 1977 to “rescue” her love, one Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary whose relationship with McKinney was (according to her) frowned upon by elder members of his church.

What transpired next became an international cause celebre, as the tabloid newspapers had a field day assembling and reporting the details and circumstances of McKinney’s attempts to “save” Anderson from the Mormon Church.

Depending on whose story you choose to believe (Anderson does not participate in the documentary) or what aspects you choose to believe, McKinney was able to spirit Anderson to a “safe house,” where she handcuffed him to a bed and had sexual relations with him.

The elements of the story were just too juicy for the media to resist: sex, secrets, obsession, celebrity. It’s a tangled web, and Morris is less concerned with untangling the elements as with simply laying them out for all the world to see.

McKinney cheerfully recounts her story, blithely (and evidently) unaware of just how bizarre it seems, even in the retelling. Even after her first go-’round with notoriety dies down, she returns to the international limelight (as it were) years later when she arranges to have her beloved dog cloned — you read that right — so that she’d always have at least a part of him in her life. Ain’t love grand?

One doesn’t so much watch Tabloid as stare in slack-jawed incredulity. This is a most unusual film about a most unusual incident — and a most unusual person in McKinney.

Tabloid isn’t as profound or as weighty as such earlier Morris efforts as The Thin Blue Line (1988) — which was instrumental in freeing an innocent man from death row in Texas — or 2003’s Oscar-winning documentary feature The Fog of War, in which former Secretary of State Robert McNamara offered his thoughts on the Vietnam War and warfare in general. This is Morris in a lighter mood (a la his 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control), although it’s no less penetrating or persuasive. For those looking for something different at the movies, Tabloid qualifies — in spades.