Sundance 2009 Review – Tyson


I’m not a huge boxing fan, so I guess the first thing I can say about director James Toback’s ‘Tyson’ is you don’t have to be a fan of the sport to appreciate the film. Having said that, I know I overheard a few self-proclaimed boxing fans expressing disappointment that they didn’t learn anything they didn’t already know. I can’t really argue with them there as someone who knows Mike best as the Nintendo “Punch Out” character that’s also a convicted rapist. Basically, I had a lot to learn and luckily, I had a great time doing it.

The opening title montage; a stylish collection of boxing footage cut into a split-screen picture-window collage, revealed one interesting piece of information about this film; Tyson himself is credited as one of the producers of the film. Normally, it would seem like a bit of a no-no for such a controversial subject to be creatively and financially connected to his own documentary. In this case, Toback counters any criticism towards this somewhat biased approach by describing the project as more of a portrait of Tyson from Tyson’s own point of view. I think this is an acceptable and interesting decision. The film avoids the more conventional point-counterpoint formula, offering no other interviews or opinions other than Tyson’s own. At one point he denies raping Desiree Washington, but at no point do I feel the need to hear her side of the story because I already know what it would be. Same goes for Robin Givens. Whether it’s dishonesty, denial or a matter of being wrongly accused, Tyson has his chance to simply talk, leaving it up to you to decide if he’s telling the truth. The director’s long running friendship with his subject certainly seemed to help him open up. We even get to see some tears, which compliment his tribal face tattoo quite fantastically.

I’d say the first third of the film is the most interesting. Getting to watch Tyson as an early rising star, knowing the man he would eventually become. He grew up as a troubled youth and was eventually reformed by his trainer, Cus D’Amato; a father figure that kept him grounded and focused. It’s only when D’Amato passed away that Tyson eventually began spiraling out of control. This is the Tyson we know today. I’m not really sure which one I find more interesting; the tattoo faced, rape convicted, ear biting, womanizing Tyson or the young, troubled kid who’s finally discovered his talent and his passion. My heart tells me the rape convicted ear biter.

Tyson is not the greatest storyteller, but it doesn’t really work against him here. It’s a part of his character. He says exactly what’s on his mind, no matter how crass or inappropriate. This obviously provides a number of laughs throughout the film. Classic moments of the past (To a reporter at the Lennox Lewis press conference: “I’ll fuck you till you love me, faggot!”) are nicely complimented by some great moments during the sit down interviews shot specifically for the film. It’s worth noting that the majority of the movie is comprised of Tyson simply talking. The interviews are inter-cut with stock footage of past fights, court trials and television appearances. The most entertaining piece of footage comes from a Barbara Walters interview in which Robin Givens describes her relationship with Tyson as a “life of horror”. As she continues to describe him as manic, violent and so on, Tyson sits quietly and listens calmly. In the voice over, he describes his feelings of disbelief and an urge to flip out and defend himself right there on the show. Something he decided against as it wouldn’t really help his case.

‘Tyson’ is well shot and implements some great stylistic choices. The split screen motif perfectly highlights Tyson’s fragmented personality, and the close-ups give you the rare opportunity to analyze the face and study the eyes of a iconic, weathered, world champion boxer without the fear of being dropped in the first round.

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