For the past decade, Mike Tyson has served as one of the creative muses of eccentric auteur James Toback, as a sort of warrior-poet ideal and alter ego. Toback memorably featured Tyson in 1999’s Black And White—Robert Downey Jr. puts the moves on him in the film’s most riveting, talked-about scene—and 2004’s When Will I Be Loved, where he popped up just long enough to unconvincingly deny being Mike Tyson. Now, with the fascinating, maddening new documentary Tyson, Toback finally consummates his intellectual love affair with the controversial athlete.
Tyson is told entirely from its subject’s perspective in a style that suggests a pugilist version of Fog Of War. Tyson tells his story in interviews edited together to form one long monologue, broken up with clips from his life and career, from his jaw-dropping early knockouts to the notorious Barbara Walters interview where he sits, mortified, next to his visibly shaken soon-to-be-ex-wife Robin Givens, as she describes their life together as a living hell. The film tracks Tyson’s meteoric rise from the mean streets of Brooklyn to the upper echelons of amateur boxing under the tutelage of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. D’Amato’s death left Tyson without a mentor or a moral center, and he quickly became as notorious for his misbehavior outside the ring as his dominance and ferocity inside it. A rape conviction hastened Tyson’s personal and professional downfall, leaving him a shattered man, a shadow of his former self.
Tyson emerges in Tyson as a hypnotic combination of self-aggrandizement and self-hatred, a wordsmith with a unique rhetorical style whose words are fast, furious, and wildly unpredictable. Yet for all Tyson’s candor, the film is a whitewash. Toback’s handling of the Desiree Washington rape case is especially problematic; the film shows footage of Washington beaming flirtatiously at Tyson in behind-the-scenes footage from the Miss Black America pageant, then invites audiences to fill in the blanks. Tyson’s redemptive arc and happy ending feel similarly bogus, as an older-and-wiser Tyson waxes sentimental about how all that really matters to him these days is being a good family man. Tyson can be brutal with himself, but Toback’s fawning documentary lets him off easy.