You may see—and perhaps already have seen—better documentaries this year than Errol Morris’ Tabloid, but I doubt you’ll see a more entertaining one. And it couldn’t come at a better time for Morris, as most Americans paid little attention to the British tabloid press until the current cell-phone hacking scandals. If they gave it any thought at all, they may have wondered why Mr. Lennon’s “Polythene Pam” was “the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World,” or why News of the World was the name of a Queen album. Well, the current scandal that brought down News of the World and continues rock Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has changed all that—and Tabloid is here with—among other things—a look into the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. Specifically, the film examines their handing of “The Case of the Manacled Mormon,” which is not one of those Sherlock Holmes stories the world is not yet ready for.
Here is a film that proves that truth may not be stranger than fiction, but that fiction pales in comparison to the workings of the mind of Joyce McKinney. Who? Well, she’s the woman at the center of it all—and not as the “manacled Mormon,” but rather as the one doing the manacling. According to her, in 1977 she was the all-American girl, a preposterously innocent 27-year-old who found her soul mate in the guise of a paunchy, gangling Mormon boy named Kirk Anderson. It was a match made in heaven, but not in the eyes of the Mormon church, which—again, according to Joyce—managed to break them up by spiriting Kirk away to a missionary stint in the U.K.
For most people, that would be an end to it. But not for Ms. McKinney, who does what she claims is “what any American girl would do,” which means tracking down Kirk and rescuing him from the Mormons. In very simplified form, this amounted to going to England with a bodyguard (who bailed almost as soon as they got there), a pilot (who bailed not long after), and one lovesick Boobus Americanus (who stuck by her). They either kidnapped or rescued Kirk, took him to a cottage in Devon, either did or didn’t tie or chain him to a bed, where Joyce either raped or had consensual sex with him for three days. Is it any wonder that the tabloids were all over this when the story—or some version of it—broke?
The resultant furor of the tabloid coverage of her trial and her flight to America (posing as a deaf mute) turned Joyce into a star of sorts. She became the kind of person we’re now unfortunately all too used to: One who’s famous for being famous. (Actually, these people have always been around—milking notoriety as fame—but never in the proliferation they are today.) At this point, she became the darling of two tabloids—the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror—who represented polar opposite views of her. The Express gave the public Joyce’s story (more or less) in a sympathetic portrayal, while the Mirror dished the dirt on her as a wanton harlot.
Where is the truth? Well, that’s not really the point here. The press used her and she used the press—both have similar methods. Since Morris really only has access to Joyce, the pilot, one “journalist” from each paper, an ex- Mormon who tries to put all the “magic underwear” and other Mormon things in perspective, and a Korean cloning expert, the truth is slippery at best. The object of her obsession refused to participate. A duplicitous ex-boyfriend couldn’t be found. The long-suffering schmuck who helped her is dead. So it’s all down to either three practiced liars, or two practiced liars and a delusional woman who seems to buy into her own BS.
There’s more. I have only touched on the strangeness of all this. That’s deliberate, because the less you know about the story before you see it, the better off you’ll be. After all, seeing is believing, though that might be stretching a point in this case. Rated R for sexual content and nudity.