Film criticism by Ian Kay.

Review: “Tyson” (2008), dir. James Toback

It seems to me that reviewing James Toback’s “Tyson” can hardly be separated from reviewing Mike Tyson himself. Film directors must be very careful when deciding whose perspective to show when telling their story, especially in a documentary, which has a literal back-story and an existing “supporting cast”. Toback chose to focus almost exclusively on Mike Tyson’s own introspection. So although what we get to hear is not wholly accurate, it is surprisingly revealing and thoroughly fascinating.

It turns out that Mike Tyson is an ideal subject for a documentary, because the man wants to talk. He is shockingly open and genuine. I wonder if Toback knew that Tyson was so eager to share his thoughts, or if it was a nice surprise. Essentially, most of the film is Mike Tyson calmly and thoughtfully sitting on a couch and telling us about his entire life. As he speaks we see clips from his awe-inspiring fights, news reports and bits of tape from various points in his life. Quite honestly, I had expected to find mostly old footage, quite a lot of interview material from acquaintances and boxing experts, and then a handful of minutes with Tyson. But nowhere to be found are new comments from Robin Givens (his first wife), Don King (his infamous manager), any member of the boxing commission, or fighters Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield. We see them in the old footage, but they are peripherals to the real drama that Toback digs into, which is the enigma of Mike Tyson’s psyche.

By his own admission, Mike Tyson has made a lot of mistakes. When he was just a young teen, he was a thief and drug dealer. In his later years he was a womanizer, an unfaithful husband, a drug addict, physically abusive and a convicted rapist (this last crime he still denies to this day). He lost massive amounts of money, his license to box and both wives. But most people have already heard about all of that.

What you may not know is that Mike Tyson is afraid. He always has been. It’s what drives him, to succeed and to do terrible things. He explains explicitly that he was small and overweight when he was a kid, and the abuse he saw and experienced scarred him for life. From his first street fight to his last professional title match, he had a great fear of being beaten and mocked. This is a repeated subject for Tyson and definitely one of the most riveting revelations of the film.

He was first able to face this fear, he tells us, because his first coach, Cus D’Amato, taught him self-respect and self-confidence. When he tells us this in the film, he gets so choked up remembering the old man that he has to stop speaking to collect himself. Yes, that’s Mike Tyson, crying. When I saw this, I realized that there is something special in this film. But before I get too far ahead of myself, even through his tears, the animal inside him bursts through. After trying and failing several times to choke out his words, he is finally able to say, “He taught me, if anybody ever fucked with me… I’d fuckin’ kill ‘em!”

That scene sums up the essence of what we see throughout the film. Tyson has a heart, he has remorse, and he has, if not 20/20 hindsight, then closer to it than I would have thought. But all of these admirable traits are filtered through a fearful, angry hole that was dug – and dug deeply – in his youth.

There is no sense of the pathetic in Tyson’s story, though. He is not asking for sympathy or forgiveness. He is simply telling us the way it was. No excuses and no apologies, although he does express many regrets about his failed second marriage and the way he lost his focus on boxing late in his career. But I found myself warily sympathizing, as Tyson’s authenticity can be easily mistaken as truth. Though Tyson does not appear to lie at any point, he also gives us plenty of reason to doubt his perspective. Beyond his very apparent lack of analytical thought, he has also been a drug addict and admitted to “black-outs”, during which he did things like chewing Evander Holyfield’s ear to a pulp during a championship fight. Given these things, how true  – or how accurate – are any of the other events he describes? Did he ever hit Robin Givens? Did he rape that woman in the early 90’s? Tyson himself seems not to know for sure.

The sad thing, which is also the thing that makes the film so good, is that he is a truly sympathetic character, suffering from a real life Jekyll and Hyde disorder. Somehow this man, who is constantly apologetic and comprehending of his mistakes, always finds himself sabotaging his own success by reverting to the same terrible behavior for which he has just expressed remorse.

I was always a fan of Mike Tyson, simply out of massive respect for his athletic ability and drive to succeed. I always hated hearing about his latest mistake. What James Toback is able to do in this film is allow us to get a relatively fair look at the famous boxer without the glaze of a championship belt or accusers to darken the story. We’ve heard the news reports and seen the fights; now here is Mike Tyson himself, showing his upside and his downside, and we can take it for what it’s worth, which is a lot more than you might think.

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