Yes, this column is returning, mostly so I can say I wrote a series of Missed Attraction articles, rather than a pair. Also because I haven’t had a chance to see The Nice Guys yet.
Ahem. One of the hardest sells to a mainstream audience is a documentary, especially a non-political documentary. Usually for a documentary to interest someone, it has to be about a subject they’re already interested in. I mean, I like Werner Herzog a lot, but I dunno if I’d love Grizzly Man if I wasn’t obsessed with media representation of my home state…and bears.
Enter Errol Morris. One of, if not the, best living documentary directors, he always manages to choose a subject that’s unique (everything from pet cemeteries to infamous executioners), and present it in a way that’s absolutely fascinating. As such, his filmography is a laundry list of some of the best documentaries of the last few decades (Gates of Heaven, Dr. Death, The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, etc.). And while Tabloid is far from his best, it’s certainly got one of the best hooks in his entire career.
Tabloid is centered around a fairly obscure event in history: In 1977 a woman named Joyce McKinney was arrested and accused of abducting, restraining and raping a Mormon Missionary named Kirk in London. In the resulting trial, Joyce claimed that she and Kirk had a prior relationship and that he had left and had sex with her willingly. The resulting trial was something of a media circus, especially between the dueling tabloid newspapers of The Daily Mirror and The Daily Express.
The center of the documentary is the interview with Joyce McKinney herself, and its easily the most fascinating single element of the film. Joyce is an interesting person, and you can see from the moment she first appears on screen that she’s kind of…off. Constantly intercutting her interviews with interviews from people who either contradict her or at least provide context for her actions is a great way of framing the story.
Of course, Joyce McKinney didn’t think so, and she eventually tried to sue Errol Morris for making her look crazy, but when you watch it, it becomes clear why the suit never went anywhere. McKinney makes herself look crazy, as her obsession with Kirk is on full display from the get go, and her unconvincing attempts to deny things that have photographic evidence or detailing her descent into reclusive paranoia, even while being seemingly unaware that’s what she’s doing.
Not that the other people in the movie are that much better, as they seem to mostly substitute McKinney’s obsession and paranoia for just being bad people. The two reporters detailing their side of the story are the primary other sources (outside a pilot who helped out McKinney, who’s perspective is limited), who turn the story from lurid and cheesy into something fascinating. The Express reporter hides his awfulness under a veneer of civility (although he seems aware of how completely he’d been duped by McKinney into believing her side of the story without question) while the Mirror reporter is so transparent in his sleazy self interest that I almost respect him for it.
But the most fascinating thing about the documentary is how many themes and topics it manages to touch. In the space of just under 90 minutes Tabloid manages to touch on religion (in general and Mormonism in particular), consent, gender roles, media, journalism, sex work…it’s got a ton of themes is what I’m saying, and it manages to do it without feeling overstuffed. In part because these things are all interconnected but also because Morris really is just that f**king good.
If I’m being vague in my descriptions, it’s because Tabloid is such a strange story, with so many odd twists and turns that I feel like if I’m too specific about it, I’ll spoil it. It’s a movie that deserves to be experienced if not cold, then without any major specifics. For right now, I’ll just say that Tabloid is on Netflix (along with one of Morris’ other most famous films, The Thin Blue Line) and if you have any interest in good documentaries, or even just good movies in general.
Alright, alright, I’ll go see The Nice Guys.
Elessar is a 26 year old Alaska born cinephile and he thinks that the movie manages to avoid taking cheap shots at Mormonism too.