DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Tyson

Tuesday 11 August 2009


Tyson (2009) dir. James Toback


James Toback's uncomplicated documentary lasers in on the complicated life of Mike Tyson and the career of the man who once united the sport and then made a mockery of it. Tyson's uninhibited self-analysis makes for a profound and thoroughly engaging cinematic confession.

Mike Tyson’s life is a cliché, a combination of 'Rocky' and 'Raging Bull' – a street thug in his youth, smaller, but tougher than anyone else, but without a traditional family and thus scared to death of the real world. While in juvenile prison along comes a good-natured elderly white man who recognizes the raw talent of Tyson, takes him under his wing, tames the beastly ferocity of the man and turns him into a World Champion.

The man is Cus D’Amato, the boxing trainer who trained the great Floyd Patterson. Tyson’s genuine love for the man is heartbreaking. Fighting back tears Tyson can barely speak when D'Amato's name is mentioned. It was a five-year relationship which brought Tyson from prison to the doorstep of the Championship of the world. The relationship of Tyson and D’Amato has been well documented, using some of the extensive news magazine footage of D’Amato training Tyson in those early days.

Tyson’s speed, power and agility is astonishing, but we also see a pitbull of energy and rage controlled only by D’Amato and his psychological training and work ethic. And so when D’Amato died in 1985, though the best days of boxing were still ahead of Tyson, it was an inevitable downfall from grace, toward the infamy he now finds himself in.

All this makes for a fascinating first person, single subject documentary, focusing in on Tyson on Tyson. Though he's an intimating brute, now face-tattooed with a Maori tribal symbol, there's an articulate and mannered side to him. Through his lisp and heavy Brooklyn accent is a surprisingly broad vocabulary who expresses his thoughts with intelligence.

Toback manages to get deep into the psyche of Tyson bringing out some dramatic confessions from the man, and an acknowledgement of everything wrong in his life. Tyson freely admits he had sex with a prostitute prior to winning the Heavyweight crown in 1987 and fought against Trevor Burbick with nasty bout of gonorrhea. He admits to his need to sexually dominate women and his abuse of drugs, and money. Nothing is off the table. We never believe Tyson’s a liar. And so when he describes the lies he claims his ex-wife Robin Gibbons told to Barbara Walters about their abusive relationship on 20/20 we believe him. Same goes with his rape conviction, which Tyson vehemently proclaims never happened actually makes us sympathize with Tyson.

Toback shows great restraint in visualizing the film. Cinephiles might recognize the cinematographer, Larry McConkey, the great steadycam man who operated the camera on Scorsese’s 'Goodfellas' and most of the other great steadycam long takes in recent history. But McConkey rightly locks his camera down in front of Tyson, sitting calmly on his couch, and outside on his beach side patio and let Tyson's words drive the story.

“Tyson” isn’t controversial and doesn’t create conspiracy. He doesn't come across as misunderstood, or wrongly accused, he never passes on guilt, or blame others for his demise. Like Michael Jackson, he's a celerbrity whose inherent personality flaws, going all the back to childhood got embellished in the bloated excess of money and fame. Like him or loathe him, all we can ask from documentary subjects is honesty and that’s what we get from "Tyson".

"Tyson" is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

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