Film Review: ‘Tabloid’


Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris (Thin Blue Line [1988], Fog of War [2003]) returns with his ninth feature-length documentary Tabloid (2010), an intriguing and jovial examination of the sensationalism which fuels tabloid journalism. Morris found the perfect subject in Joyce McKinney for his exposé of how truth can often be distorted by the mainstream media. Her stranger-than-fiction story switches between the accounts of a deluded fantasist and old-school romantic, continually blurring the lines of fact and fiction.

McKinney grew up in North Carolina, a former beauty queen with an IQ of 168, whose single-minded devotion to the man of her dreams (Kirk Anderson, who just so happened to be a devout Mormon) led her across the globe on a surreal and well-publicised adventure. From gunpoint abductions to manacled Mormons and cloned puppies, McKinney’s notorious affair had everything needed to thrust her into the public eye.

Morris successfully gained full access to McKinney and allows us a window into the events which made her a worldwide sensation in the 1970s. McKinney’s maddening love affair with Kirk Anderson quickly spiralled out of control and somehow led her to become the focus of a media storm. McKinney presumed Anderson had been abducted by the Mormon Church, however, when she flew over to England to ‘save him’ (complete with her own pilot and bodyguard), news stories quickly broke that she had taken him against his will, chained him to a bed and raped him numerous times. It became a story so bizarre that almost every facet of it becomes difficult to base in fact, with McKinney’s peculiar story becoming front page news across the country ‘ leading to numerous expose stories which aimed to delve into the deepest recesses of her ‘colourful’ past.

McKinney is a wonderfully entertaining character, often stealing the focus from the documentary’s main aim to investigate the underhand tactics of the British tabloid press. Quirky, extremely passionate and weirdly watchable, McKinney’s story is utterly fascinating and only accentuated by her eccentricity.

However, the key to Tabloid’s success is Morris’ ability to breakdown the conventions of documentary filmmaking whilst still maintaining the foundations of an informative and entertaining story. The film’s informal talking head segments are both frank and extremely enjoyable – allowing both sides to express their views without ever showing favouritism to either side.

Tabloid is less an investigation of the scandalous events which took place but rather a well-rounded retelling told from multiple perspectives – constantly spinning the story of McKinney’s ordeal, turning her from an innocent romantic to a devious prostitute before painting her as a deeply depressed and emotionally scarred woman. Morris’ use of stock footage and super imposed text allows the story to flow with ease, whilst the fast paced editing adds gravitas to McKinney’s chaotic story – fitting perfectly with the scattered nature of her life.

Tabloid is a thoroughly pleasing meditation of how easily our opinions are shaped by the media and how powerful the beliefs and emotions they subtly plant can become – often evolving into a blurred amalgamation of newspaper heresy and the truth. Perfectly capturing our cultural need to latch onto stories which transcend the mundane rigmaroles of everyday life, Tabloid is a deeply personal, yet light-hearted piece of satire lovingly captured through Morris’ mesmerising gaze.

Patrick Gamble