When a person is viewed through the one-way prism of a television set, magazine or newspaper, it's easy to view that person as simple and one-sided. That's because media outlets survive by streamlining complexity and focusing on one characteristic that may be organic but is often manufactured. This media shaping of character grows exponentially with how effective the person is at what he or she does. Evidence of this phenomenon appears time and again with celebrities, politicians and athletes. So when the subject is Mike Tyson -- who is arguably the greatest boxer in history -- the natural inclination is to see the violent warrior first and the man second.
Tyson, directed by James Toback, attempts to dispel that image in one comprehensive documentary. Despite his heroic accomplishments, like becoming the youngest heavyweight champion at 20 or being the first to hold all three major belts -- WBA, WBC and IBF -- at the same time, many remember Mike Tyson as the scary man who abused Robin Givens, went to jail for raping Desiree Washington and threatened to eat Lennox Lewis's children. Even more will remember Tyson for actually chomping on Evander Holyfield's ears and threatening a man at a press conference with the inimitable "I'll fuck you ‘til you love me, faggot!" Thankfully, Toback doesn't shy away from any of these aspects -- Tyson isn't a PR campaign; it's a portrait.
To help him illustrate, Toback uses three separate cinematic elements. The first is archived footage of Tyson at his best and worst in the ring. The way these segments are cut together -- intercutting post-bout interviews with knockout punches -- create exciting montages that rival the best fictional boxing films. Toback also manages to obtain amazing rare footage of Mike Tyson training with his mentor and guardian, Cus D'Amato. Seeing what Tyson was like before being sucked into the turbulent world of fame and fortune is reason enough to watch this film. Toback also uses split-screens and overlapping speech to help communicate the chaotic and sometimes broken mind of Mike Tyson. The effect is disquieting when Tyson's face is pieced together on screen through multiple frames and the seams don't quite match and his voice runs over itself. The last technique Toback employs is to pull the focus away from his direction and just let Tyson talk.
What Mike Tyson has to say isn't necessarily surprising except in its mundaneness. In many ways, Tyson presents himself as an ordinary guy with ordinary observations. He portrays the tough streets of Brooklyn where he grew up as being a rough neighborhood. He describes prison as horrific and Don King as slimy and reptilian.
He wants a strong, self-confident woman who he can dominate sexually. By and large, Tyson's thoughts are run-of-the-mill for high-profile individuals who rose to great heights from nothing, only to come crashing down again, but with Tyson, it's refreshing to hear him articulate his thoughts so genuinely and eloquently. Only two moments in the film disrupted the experience. The interview with Tyson is presented in the standard format where the interviewer is muted and out of frame, giving the effect that the subject is speaking directly to the audience.
At one point, however, Tyson is turned away from the camera, continuing the interview with someone off-screen, alienating the audience for those few seconds. At another point, Tyson speaks directly to the camera as he approaches, talking about how he's stabilized his life, as the serene backdrop of trees sways in the breeze. That moment will briefly conjure images of an infomercial, but these are nitpicky complaints. Overall, Tyson is a triumph for director James Toback. In an hour and a half, he's able to humanize, dignify and add several dimensions to a man who has been described by one word at a time his entire life. Whatever your opinions are of Mike Tyson, this film may not change them. You may, however, discover that you have more in common with Tyson than you do differences.
Sony Pictures Classics' 'Tyson' is in theaters now