By Alejandro Riera
What do Fred Leuchter, Jr., Robert McNamara, and Joyce McKinney have in common despite their disparate backgrounds? All three possess a deep sense of self-confidence as well as hubris. All three have a great story to tell. And if there is something documentarian Erroll Morris loves is a good story, especially when it comes directly from the horse’s mouth.
In “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.”, it was the story of an expert on execution devices who ruined his career after being hired by Holocaust revisionist Ernst Zundel to prove that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz and publishing his “findings”. In “The Fog of War,” McNamara, Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, responsible for the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, lays bare his soul, acknowledging the mistakes he made and the lessons this country could learn from them.
Joyce McKinney’s story in “Tabloid,” Morris’ latest documentary, may not be as weighty or issue-driven, or so it would seem, but it’s quite a humdinger. McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming born in North Carolina, achieved brief celebrity status in Great Britain during the mid-70s as the protagonist of what the British tabloids gleefully called “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.” McKinney was arrested and accused of kidnapping Kirk Anderson, a 21-year old Mormon missionary she was infatuated with, taking him to a cottage in Dover, manacling him to a bed and having her way with him for a good three days. If you were a tabloid journalist of the era –hell, a journalist of any era, tabloid or broadsheet- how could you not resist the appeal of such an outrageous story?
Morris can’t, either. He has found in Joyce McKinney the perfect foil: a subject who has no qualms about sharing her story. She talks and she talks and she talks. She embellishes her story whenever necessary with folksy and even idiosyncratic expressions. You can never quite tell if McKinney is performing a fictionalized version of herself or if this is the real deal, warts and all. But she IS an innate storyteller.
For “Tabloid” is not exactly an indictment of tabloid journalism. It is about the nature of stories: who tells them, how they is told and who, in the end, owns and controls them. As Morris shows throughout this deceitfully simple documentary, stories, and the truth behind them, are slippery, malleable creatures. Morris not only gives McKinney a considerable amount of screen time but also interviews some of the other characters involved in the story: Peter Tory from The Daily Express and Kent Lavin from The Mirror; Jackson Shaw, the pilot who flew her and her accomplice to England; Tory Williams, better known as “The Gay Mayor of Salt Lake City” and a former Mormon; and a South Korean scientist who, later in McKinney’s life, successfully cloned her dead pitbull dog, making the former tabloid celebrity once again the subject of some sensational stories.
They all contradict, corroborate and enhance McKinney’s story. Absent from the documentary: Keith May, her accomplice and “slave” who died in the early noughties, and Anderson, the subject of her affection (obsession?) who declined to be interviewed. The former took his story to the grave; the latter most probably will take HIS story to the grave as well.
And then there’s Morris who, through the use of framing (his subjects are sometimes shot in the middle or at the edge of the frame), tabloid-style headlines, old photographs and footage from TV shows, industrial and recruitment films, adds flavor and even editorializes on the testimonies offered on-screen.
So, whose story is this anyway? Joyce McKinney’s, of course. Ironically, she’s been trying to write her own autobiography for the last two decades but something has stopped her from doing so. Morris, in a way, is playing the role of McKinney’s ghost writer, editor and publisher. And as such, one wonders how much of McKinney’s story was left on the cutting room floor (How did she manage to make a living all these years? How did she pay for all those trips to Seoul?).
Morris is not interested in passing judgment on tabloid journalism. It is what is: ludicrously hyperbolic and addictive, another storytelling vehicle. Their two on-screen representatives are well-spoken, intelligent. One even wonders what the hell they are doing working for such reprehensible organizations. Yet, Morris makes clear that unlike their phone hacking counterparts of today, these tabloid journalists practiced their craft the old-fashioned way, by hitting the pavement and following up on their leads (even though some were not below paying their sources a buck or a hundred for a juicy scoop). All for the sake of a good story.