Documentarian Errol Morris travels back to the '70s to tell the story of Joyce McKinney, a blonde bombshell who found herself at the center of the perfect tabloid storm that became known as "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." In the process, Morris examines the relationship between tabloid "stars," the media and the public--nobody emerging with their dignity intact.
"Tabloid" brilliantly uses McKinney's tale to show how addictive press coverage can be for the subject, how low the press will stoop and how ravenously we the people consume the garbage they produce. More importantly, it's a reminder that this idiocy is not a product of the internet, but is a food chain that has existed for decades.
McKinney was a beauty queen who had lived such sheltered life that she says she hadn't seen much of the world "until I got to Utah," a declaration she makes with not a whiff of irony. It's there that she met a young Mormon man, Kirk Andersen, with whom she would fall so deeply in love that she "would have skied down Mount Everest in the nude with a carnation up my nose."
When Andersen disappears to England one day, McKinney hunts him down, abducts him at gunpoint and drives him to a secluded cabin, where she chains him to a bed and has sex with him for three days. She says it was a romantic getaway, "like a Honeymoon," he would later tell police it was kidnapping and rape. The mind reels at how MSNBC, Us Weekly and CNN would cover this thing.
More than 30 years later, McKinney happily sat for Morris, talking at length in her faintly sexy southern drawl, displaying all the charm, wit and audacity that made her such compelling copy. It's clear that for all the misery the press caused her, she still loves the attention.
Morris intersperses her version of events with interviews with Peter Tory of the Daily Express and Kent Gavin of the The Mirror, two men who originally covered the story, and have loads of evidence that suggest that McKinney wasn't quite the sweet young thing she claimed to be.
If Morris makes a misstep, it's having Troy Williams, a gay activist and radio host in Salt Lake City, offer commentary on how Andersen's Mormonism may have been guiding him. Williams has great presence, he's a natural speaker, but as someone who says he was "saved … from Mormonism," he's clearly biased. Still, he knows his stuff and offers some hilarious bizarre background on the Church will certainly do Mitt Romney's presidential bid no favors.
Just as you're thinking that maybe McKinney is a misunderstood victim of a rabid press and a heartless lover, she outs herself as something more complicated. She suffers a suspiciously well-documented theft, is nearly killed by a dog that OD'ed on prednisone, ships another dog's DNA off to South Korea to be cloned. One might be tempted to call it her third act, but it's clear that she is perpetually poised to put her self in the public eye at any moment.
"Tabloid" is a compelling and amusing reminder that all the new social ills we bemoan aren't really new at all.