A fighter's frankness challenges our preconceptions.
Sony Pictures Classics/AP
In the James Toback documentary "Tyson," the fighter renowned for biting off a piece of rival Evander Holyfield's ear is so candid in his private interviews that, for us, it's like eavesdropping on a therapy session. At 20, Mike Tyson was the youngest boxer ever to win the heavyweight championship, but in the intervening 23 years his triumph has been harrowed by woe and torment.
Toback draws on an impressive archive of clips from Tyson's career in and out of the ring (some of which will be familiar to those who have seen Barbara Kopple's excellent 1993 Tyson documentary "Fallen Champ"). But what makes Toback's film such a searingly creepy experience are his interviews with Tyson, often rendered in a split-screen format with Toback off-camera. Tyson comes across as a powerfully candid man bewildered by his own powers of self-insight.
For some, it may be a shock seeing Tyson talk so eloquently about his life – his rough upbringing in Brooklyn, his history of juvenile crime, his reclamation by the great trainer (and surrogate father Cus D'Amato), his up-and-down heavyweight career, with its sordid glories. But the dumb galoot stereotype doesn't fit Tyson any more than it does most other boxing greats. Whatever one's opinion of its brutalities, boxing is as much a mind game as a blood sport. It's a form of condescension to be shocked by Tyson's intelligence.
As a boy, Tyson was afraid of being physically humiliated in the streets, and, as he states, that fear never really left him. But D'Amato was able to set him straight as both a fighter and as a man (the two aspects are inextricably linked). D'Amato's death in 1985, a year before Tyson won the championship, was a permanent devastation and clearly contributed to the fighter's unmooring.
Tyson's brief marriage to the actress Robin Givens was humiliation of another kind. On the "Barbara Walters Show," from which we see a clip, she matter-of-factly calls him a bipolar brute, while Tyson, looking poleaxed, takes it all in. In this showbiz arena his specialized skills can do him no good. His postmortem to this event, as well as his explanations for why he munched on Holyfield's ear – he says it was retaliation for repeated head butts – are convincingly detailed. Only his flat-out denial of the rape charge that put him in prison rings hollow. It may well be that he was set up, but his failure to examine this part of his life – except to say the incident made him never trust anyone again – doesn't fit with the expansiveness of the rest of his testimony. (Kopple's movie was mostly about the rape.)
Toback may not have wanted to press Tyson unduly on this point for fear of sabotaging his access (though the two men are friends and Tyson was featured briefly in two of Toback's dramatic films). Or it could be that he simply buys the fighter's explanations.
But a racially tinged, hero-worshipy glaze sometimes coats Toback's camera lens. His warts-and-all portrait of Tyson is showcased as a celebration of a self-immolating superman whose demons have an almost Dostoyevskian pedigree. (Toback's production company is called Fyodor.) In an act of reverse condescension, Toback may be overvaluing the metaphysical heft of Tyson's anguish. Sometimes a fighter is just a fighter (which is plenty).
Still, it is not often in the movies that we get so excruciatingly close to such a complicated mass of contradictions as Tyson. Toback's split-screen technique can be annoying, but it serves as an apt visual representation of a man whose fractured consciousness is startlingly on view. The display is almost endlessly interesting. Grade: A- (Rated R for language including sexual references.)