At first glance, the prospects for James Toback’s documentary Tyson could be described as limited at best, and boring and unappealing at worst. This has more to do with Toback’s cinematically inert approach than anything else. Consisting of talking-head interviews with former boxer Mike Tyson and archival footage spanning his much-maligned and very public career, the movie feels more like something that should be airing in prime time on ESPN rather than screened in a movie theater. When I first realized that Tyson was going to be 90 minutes of the former heavyweight champion talking to the audience about his own life, my reaction was a mix of surprise and bewilderment.
There was simply no way that listening to Tyson—never the most eloquent of speakers to begin with—for that amount of time could be anything but a cinematic train wreck. But a strange thing happened as the film moved along: Tyson became engaging. No, he’s not the most able speaker you’ll find (he puts Dubya to shame in the misused-and-mispronounced-word category), but the film does an honorable job of showing the human being behind the sideshow that is Mike Tyson’s life. It certainly helps that Tyson is so surprisingly honest—at least in his ability not to shy away from the ugliness of his life.
The purpose of Tyson is to humanize the ex-champ and, for the most part, Toback succeeds. At least this is the case when the filmmaker allows Tyson to dissect himself and his reasons for why he thinks he is the way he is. Of course, it’s up to the viewer to decide if they should trust Tyson’s words, which is largely what makes Tyson so engaging. When he discusses his rape conviction in 1992, he still claims his innocence. Whether or not to believe him is left up to the individual audience member to decide.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Toback—a lifelong friend of Tyson’s—feels it necessary to try to manipulate the viewer into feeling sympathy for the man. This is especially off base when these attempts are laughably hokey, like the footage of Tyson wistfully walking down the beach peering longingly towards the horizon while a recording of his voice recites poetry. This sort of cheese smells even riper when you come upon how complex Tyson turns out to be. A scene toward the end of the film where Tyson discusses his children is surprisingly warm due to the childlike enthusiasm Tyson shows just talking about them. As Tyson paints himself, he was a person built, trained and raised to fight, and when fame and money came along, he was the last person equipped to handle it. But the picture Tyson ultimately paints is that of a man wholly aware of how despicable a person he once was—a man trying to come to terms with that at the age of 40, still trying to fit in with the rest of the world (or as he puts it, “Old too soon, wise too late”).
No, Tyson isn’t the most dazzlingly stylish documentary you’ll ever see, but approached as a psychological study of the kind of dysfunctional celebrity that America is so fond of (look at the recent coverage of Michael Jackson’s death if you need proof of this), the film is surprisingly engaging. Rated R for language, including sexual references.