I’ve written before that the foundation for a truly great documentary is a central question that can drive the narrative. The interviews and framing build on that question, and even a strong subject needs the focus that a compelling question brings to a film. The question at the center of Scandalous seems to be, “So, the National Enquirer, huh?” It is, unsurprisingly, not a great foundation on which to build.
Director Mark Landsman’s new film traces the history of the National Enquirer from its mob-funded beginning through the days of Oprah and Princess Di all the way up to the “catch and kill” stories of the Trump era. At its best, the anecdotes in the film are fun and the revelations – “catch and kill” has been going on since the Bob Hope days, for example – are revealing. The names and stories will resonate with anyone old enough to remember a pre-internet world in which celebrity gossip was delivered primarily via grocery store check-out line. And the interviewees have some good stories about moments like the time the Enquirer obtained a photo of Elvis in his casket, or the extensive and questionably intimate ways the team investigated the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
But the interviewees are almost exclusively former National Enquirer employees (the outlier being a few brief appearances by Carl Bernstein because a little gravitas that seems out of place is better than none I guess?), which results in a lack of dimension. Landsman touches on some genuinely interesting topics: the ethics of the Enquirer’s policy of paying regularly for stories, the responsibility of the Enquirer vs. that of the mainstream press, and the way Donald Trump and others recognized the utility of the Enquirer as “a microphone to a different group of people” because of its grocery store placement. The limited perspective of the interviewees, though, keeps the film from exploring any of those topics in a meaningful way. The former staff featured have insight that’s deep, but not wide, and it doesn’t allow for topics that could be compelling to be examine from multiple angles.
The other major challenge with the way Landsman takes on a broad history of the National Enquirer is that he doesn’t linger on any of the topics long enough for consideration: just as you start to really think about the ethical implications of a coerced confession that results in a person’s imprisonment, the film has moved on to the way the editorial staff killed stories on Bill Cosby and then jumps to the role the paper’s style of collecting stories might have contributed to Princess Diana’s death, or the way Trump utilized the Enquirer in the 1980s to manipulate his own publicity. Incidentally, Landsman seemingly also avoids asking any difficult questions about decisions, like the one to kill those Cosby stories of Iain Calder, who was the editor and president of the Enquirer from the mid 70s to the mid 90s (he appears extensively in the film).
In the end, while there is an element of 80s and 90s nostalgia to the celebrities and scandals that pass through the film, Scandalous is frustrating because of what it doesn’t bother to do and the questions it doesn’t bother to ask with any real intentionality or effort. It may be fitting that a documentary about the National Enquirer turns out to be as superficial as celebrity gossip often is, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth more of your time than it would take to glance at tabloid headlines while waiting your turn to write empty your cart and write a check at the local Safeway.