You would have to be a Unabomber-style hermit to not know about the recent phone hacking scandal in England. But to recap: employees of News of the World, a British tabloid published under the aegis of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., were found to have illegally accessed the phone records and voicemails of celebrities and British royals in an effort to gather gossip. More shockingly, it was later discovered that the hacking extended to the voicemail accounts of deceased soldiers, bombing victims, and, in the case that finally broke the story open internationally, that of Milly Dowler, a 13-year old murdered girl.
The ramifications of the case are still being felt—when the Prime Minister’s former spokesman is arrested, one can expect a long series of court cases—but the biggest to date still seems (even if wholly deserved) somehow shocking: the closure, after over a century and a half of continuous operation, of News of the World, which ceased publication just days after the Dowler news broke.
It wasn’t always so grim, as evidenced by Tabloid, the new film from the wonderful Errol Morris. A keen-eyed director with a bent for small stories that play large, Morris’ films have helped free an innocent man convicted of murder (The Thin Blue Line) and made the pet cemetery business a jumping-off point for an existential exploration (Gates of Heaven).
With his latest, Morris is focused not on the recent headlines, but on the story of Joyce McKinney, a one-time Miss Wyoming whose outrageous life seemed to write its own headlines. Her story begins in the late 1970s, when she chased the man she loved—a Mormon missionary—to England. Shortly afterward, she was arrested on charges of abducting the man, who alleged she manacled him to a bed in Devon before raping him. It would be known, thanks to the tabloids of the day, as the “Mormon Sex in Chains” case.
McKinney—whose worldview also includes things like “magic underwear”—had a different take on it: she was saving her man from indoctrination into what she viewed as a cult, and she wasn’t about to wait for the trial. Instead, she beat it back to America under a false passport. And that might have been the end of her story, but for her sometimes self-destructive knack for garnering press.
As it turns out, the impetus for Morris’ film came not from the sex scandal, or at least not at first. It came from the 2008 reports that an American woman—”Bernann McKinney”—had just had five clones of her deceased pit bull “Booger” produced by South Korean scientists. Of course, it didn’t take long for reporters to make the connection and take it public, despite McKinney’s legal threats. And yet one feels that McKinney, with her self-proclaimed IQ of 168, has always schemed for attention in one way or another.
It’s that wildly combustible combination of self-delusion, self-belief, and self-promotion that makes McKinney such a perfect subject, both for the tabloids and, in a different way, for Morris, who can largely let his character tell her own story. But even now, McKinney isn’t finished. Since the film’s release, she has been on a cross-country mission to protest what she now calls a misrepresentation of that story. Showing up at high-profile screenings (sometimes wearing a disguise) to heckle the film, McKinney continues to turn heads, if only the heads of those wondering what all the noise is about. She might be her own worst enemy, but there’s no denying her presence, and one can’t help but feel strangely hopeful that a shifty-looking stranger will be seen sidling into a local screening.
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.