You probably think you already know everything you could ever want to know about Mike Tyson, the former world heavyweight boxing champ and convicted rapist, who twice bit Evander Holyfield's ear in a bout. Yet, Tyson, the 2008 documentary from filmmaker James Toback, asks you to give him another hour and a half of your attention. Is it worth it?
N.B., this is a promotional still, not a screen grab
Tyson is ninety minutes of the ex-champ providing his own perspective on his life story, interrupted only by archival footage. This documentary makes no pretense at objectivity. There are no interviews with former opponents, ex-wives, alleged victims, attorneys, or friends or foes of any kind. There is only Tyson, most often sitting on his living-room couch, framed in very tight focus, gazing directly into the camera, explaining, confessing, and rationalizing the mess that is his life.
The decidedly subjective format of this documentary, together with the facts that filmmaker James Toback has been a close associate of Tyson for more than two decades and that Tyson is one of the film's producers, could have resulted in a whitewash that attempted to exonerate the man and rehabilitate his image, but it doesn't. Though Tyson blames fate and those around him for most of his misfortunes, he returns repeatedly to his own wretched moral character. Through his own admissions here and throughout the archival footage, he presents a consistent interpretation of himself as a thuggish brute, scarred by childhood fears, who took pleasure in dominating opponents in the ring and women outside it, who has, at best, simply mellowed with age.
The documentary opens with archival footage of Mike Tyson defeating Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the WBC heavyweight champ. The 20-year-old Tyson doesn't just beat the 31-year-old Berbick, he utterly dominates him. In footage of this fight and many others throughout his early career, Tyson is shown to have been one of the best, if not the absolute best, boxer to ever enter the ring. Most often smaller than his opponents, Tyson displayed unmatched power in his punch, coupled with speed found only in much lighter fighters. Again and again, he explodes in the early rounds of his bouts with a fury of savage punches that knock his opponents senseless.
Having given a taste for what Tyson would achieve in the ring, the documentary backtracks to detail his troubled youth. As a boy Tyson was fat, asthmatic, and scared. When he learned that he had a natural talent for fighting, he became a thug. Repeatedly in and out of detention, the would-be fighter eventually came to the notice of legendary trainer Cus D'Amato who nurtured his talent and salved the boy's wounded psyche. To this date, D'Amato who died in 1985, remains the only person that Mike Tyson has ever come to completely trust and love. More than twenty years after D'Amato's death, Tyson still cannot talk about his former trainer without being overcome with emotion.
With few exceptions, Tyson has nothing good to say about anybody besides D'Amato, but he reserves special hatred "for that wretched swine of a woman" Desiree Washington, the Miss America contestant he was convicted of raping in 1992. Despite serving three years behind bars, Tyson still professes his innocence regarding this charge, though he essentially admits to forcing himself on many other women.
Tyson also admits to letting hundreds of millions of dollars slip through his fingers by making bad business deals and living large, but his alcohol and drug addiction go mostly unmentioned here. Regarding his most infamous low point in the ring, biting Evander Holyfield's ear twice in their 1997 bout, Tyson admits that he lost control, but partially excuses himself by pointing to Holyfield's repeated head-butts which were ignored by the referee, but which are confirmed by the accompanying archival footage. Suspended for a year from boxing and fined three million dollars, Tyson's career never recovered. Though he'd continue to have some high profile fights including a title shot at Lennox Lewis, the remainder of Tyson's professional career was marked by controversy and ignoble defeats, but Toback does spares Tyson the humiliation of highlighting his 2006 exhibition tour against the obese, nearly-blind Corey Sanders.
Toback frequently uses split screens and layered audio to emphasize aspects of Tyson's autobiography. This approach, together with interviewing tricks picked up from Toback's own psychoanalytic therapy, and the fact that the interviews were obtained on long uninterrupted days of recording while Tyson was going through treatment for alcoholism, make the final product uniquely revealing of Tyson's complex and conflicting self-image.
Video & Audio:
Shot on high-def video, Tyson is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) at 1080p. Composed of a mix of handsome new materials with vivid colors and sharp detail, and archival materials are of varying quality, the overall visual quality of Tyson is very high.
Optional subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and French.
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix sounds dynamic and free of distortion or dropout. Tyson's narration is mostly directed to the center front, while archival footage is directed left and right front, and the score to the rear channels.
Tyson includes three high-definition featurettes, a filmmaker's commentary, a theatrical trailer, and also trailers for other Sony Pictures Classics Blu-ray releases. The featurettes are typical faire -- A Day with James Toback (16:11) consists of loosely edited excerpts from a press junket and premiere screening in Los Angeles; Iron Mike: Toback Talks Tyson (11:49), the best of the three, is a tighter Q&A about the making of the film; and James Toback on The Big Picture Show (13:08) is a promotional interview with Toback about the film. Toback keeps the commentary track moving along nicely without dead spots. The same anecdotes come up again and again over the three featurettes and the commentary making the featurettes especially redundant, but for fans of the documentary, the commentary is interesting enough to be worth checking out.
Free to tell our own life stories without fear of contradiction, I imagine most of us would linger on those details that make us look good and gloss over those that make us look bad. Tyson doesn't do this.
Though likely not completely accurate, the story former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson tells about himself in James Toback's 2008 documentary Tyson is complex and conflicting, but never pretty. Though he denies the 1992 rape for which he served three years behind bars and attempts to justify partially how he came to bite Evander Holyfield's ear twice in their 1997 bout, he confesses repeatedly to being a thuggish brute with a penchant for hurting opponents and sexually dominating women.
Tyson is a fascinating look into the psyche of a deeply troubled man who once had the world by the tail, but who let it slip through his fingers.