Tyson

Starring Mike Tyson. Directed by James Toback.
Rated M (Sporting violence and coarse language). 88 min.

This film is about the life of Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. At just 20, Tyson was the youngest champion of the world, and his ferocity as a boxer was responsible for knockout victories in his first 19 bouts, 12 of them in the first round. The film attempts to make the case that his being bullied as a child instilled a level of savagery that drove him in the ring. He came to boxing from a detention centre where he was incarcerated as a teenager in New York, and where his potential was recognized by Cus D’Amato, who trained him to be the ferocious boxing machine that he was. 

The film uses original interviews, archival footage and photographs to present a complex picture of a conceited man, who held the world at his feet, disgraced himself, and returns to tell his story. Born in one of the toughest districts of America (Brooklyn, New York), the movie is about Tyson’s childhood memories and exploits, his motivation for boxing, and his shame, following his conviction for the alleged rape in 1992 of Desiree Washington, who was a beauty contestant in Indiana. As has been said about the movie, one may still hate Tyson after seeing the film, but one has to work a little harder to do that.  It is impossible in this documentary not to sense Tyson’s vulnerability, as he struggles to control his anger and fury, which were personally important to him as a fighter in the ring. We are exposed to his drug and sexual exploits, his unfaithfulness, his extraordinary appetite for aggression, but the film brings us closer to a better understanding of the person who bit off the ear of Evander Holyfield in their boxing rematch in 1997, an act which earned Tyson a $3m fine and which contravened every standard in the professional sport of boxing.

The film is directed by James Toback, a friend of Tyson, who allows him to reveal himself completely, showing us everything about him that is good and bad. This is a  troubling documentary that challenges obvious reasons that exist to dislike the man. Tyson is immensely violent, both in and out of the ring, but has led a life of mistrust, and mistreatment by others. The only person Tyson ever trusted was his trainer, D’Amato, and the film movingly shows Tyson crying over his death.

The style of Toback’s direction, with his split screen techniques (which separates both sight and sound), establishes a level of intimacy which convincingly shows Tyson as a lonely figure who received a lot of  hurt, just as he delivered hurt to others. No matter what one feels about the sport of boxing, this is an unusual documentary about the complexity of a human being entrapped within its folds. The film vividly portrays a suffering and arrogant person, who has never lost his rage. This is a movie where Toback lets Tyson say whatever he pleases, and in doing so, his direction reveals a man who asks us to forgive. 

The film is a personal journey into the psyche of an errant individual who has held the public at his feet, and thrown its admiration away. The documentary tugs at our sympathy, and makes us uneasy that it does so. Tyson is much more than a convicted rapist and a mean fighter, and the film transforms a disgraced individual into a person we are asked also to accept. Tyson’s plea to the camera that, now it is all over, he sees himself as “angelic trash”, is self-delusion, and one has to ask a lot of unstated questions about society’s reinforcement of his rage. 

Because the film centers itself almost entirely on Tyson, we have only one side to his story, and we are guided to that by his friend.  We are denied what others might think about what he has said or done. Further, the humanization of Tyson, tends to humanize the sport of boxing itself, which is intrinsically aggressive, and in that sense the documentary is strongly manipulative. Nevertheless, the story of Tyson as a complex troubled human being, who rose to great heights and then fell from them very badly, is fascinating

Sony Pictures. Out August 13, 2009

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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