The abrupt, abashed shutdown of News of the World doesn't mark the end of British tabloid journalism, but the golden age of U.K. scandal sheets may be over. For one thing, it's hard to imagine that Fleet Street rags will ever find a better subject than Joyce McKinney, the former Miss Wyoming who in 1977 did those newspapers a tremendous favor.
People who read the American press at the time may remember the case. McKinney followed her true love, Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson, to England. Then she kidnapped the man she calls "Cult Kirk" and attempted to deprogram him by -- allegedly -- chaining him to a bed and raping him.
"It's a love story," says today's McKinney, at 61 pudgier yet seemingly just as buoyant as when she stripped off Cult Kirk's "magic underwear" and burned it.
This all happened a long time ago, but there's a reason Errol Morris decided to revisit the abduction. It turns out that McKinney has not retired as a newspaper subject. Tabloid delights in the obsession of McKinney (who claims to still love her onetime captive) with Anderson (who declined to be interviewed). But in its final chapter, the movie pivots in a different direction, pursuing a lesser-known but equally nutty episode in McKinney's life.
Tabloid is something of a palate cleanser after Standard Operating Procedure, Morris' investigation of the notorious photographs taken by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. The new film doesn't address anything more momentous than the power of adolescent infatuation and lifelong self-delusion.
Yet the two documentaries are linked. Both consider the limitations of journalistic storytelling, which are, in a sense, the limitations of human expectations. People like straightforward stories, with "good" and "bad" characters and what Hollywood calls a narrative arc. Morris interviews two of the people who constructed that arc, a Daily Mirror reporter and a Daily Express photographer. The former calls Anderson's kidnapping "a perfect tabloid story." The latter made it even better by locating photos of McKinney that undermined her claims to have been sexually innocent when she (and no fewer than three accomplices) trailed Anderson to Britain.
Morris became widely known thanks to The Thin Blue Line, which cracked a case and freed an unjustly jailed man. His more recent movies resemble his earlier ones in some ways -- notably their intrusive use of music -- yet refuse to be so clear-cut.
Tabloid is a memorable portrait of a woman who is utterly unmolested by self-doubt or -analysis. McKinney is the sort of self-promoter who trumpets a supposed 168 IQ, as if one test result at one moment should earn a permanent pass to the national VIP lounge. She cheerfully reveals the orifices in which she smuggled letters from prison, apparently believing -- as do many reality TV watchers -- that candor equals truthfulness.
What Morris doesn't attempt is a definitive account of Anderson's kidnapping. Emulating the bold-italic sans-serif typefaces of tabloid headlines, the filmmaker puckishly flashes words and phrases on the screen. But he rejects the oversimplifications those headlines evoke. Tabloid spins a heck of a yarn, while implicitly warning viewers not to be so entertained that they believe every gamy detail.