Objectivity, while not the most important ingredient in a documentary, still should not be ignored. Tyson, director/gambler/narcisist James Toback’s portrait of his longtime friend former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, flatters itself with what it thinks is brutal honesty, but in fact has no more depth than a puff piece on Entertainment Tonight.
If Toback (Two Girls and a Guy, When Will I Be Loved, Black and White) were not so regularly a repetitive, self-involved, dull filmmaker, Tyson would appear to be a massive waste of a great resource. One would think that the documentary would be perfect for Toback, considering he makes movies about only one subject, himself, under the guise of slick-talking pretty-boy gamblers who engage in confused criminal enterprises and scandalous threesomes (and sometimes interracial!), all the while Toback the filmmaker sucks up to the “urban” audience by sneaking in as many gratuitous cameos of rappers and athletes as possible. He’s been doing it since 1974, when his screenplay for The Gambler was produced, and it has often been bewildering how he gets financing for each “new” project.
Since Tyson only features Mike Tyson, in our face for 90 minutes, mangling the English language (somehow appearing even more cartoonish than the parody of him on The Simpsons), you’d think this would eliminate Toback’s insistence on turning Tyson into himself. And yet, by skimming over the most fascinating details of his life, his dealings with Don King, his rape conviction, the brutality of his marriage to Robin Givens (Tyson famously said that the best punch he ever threw was the one that smacked her across the room, all of the physical abuse is neglected in Tyson, in favor of blaming both parties), the later fights where he was clearly trying to find a way out by breaking his opponents arm [two different fights it happened, not one mention], the details of how one squanders $300 million, being held up at gunpoint as a teenager by assistant trainer [and current ESPN boxing analyst] Teddy Atlas after Atlas accused Tyson of trying to rape one of Atlas’ relatives, the clearly fixed fights, the dissolution of his relationship with trainer Kevin Rooney which began his downfall, etc., Toback portrays Tyson as a hustler/criminal with drug problems and a problem with promiscuous behavior. While that all may be true, it is such an odd oversimplification.
Perhaps Toback couldn’t clear the material because of fear of lawsuits and other legal wranglings? Actually no, I asked him that very question after the screening, and he said that while dealing with the legal end was time consuming, everything he wanted in the film made it in.
And what of the footage that is in the movie? Using classic clips of Tyson during his salad days (with the ESPN Classic logo half cropped out on the bottom left), Toback, for, I guess, impact’s sake, decided to add phony sound effects to amplify the power of Tyson’s punches, because the visual display of his early knockouts was clearly not enough. This phony distraction sets the wrong tone right away, and as Toback does his usual split screen trick, we just see Tyson being defensive and making excuses in three different angles at the same time. On his rape, he didn’t commit the one he was convicted of, though he’d probably been aggressive with women other times. Though, of course, according to him, he never needed to do that with women to get them. His early management? They were slave masters. Don King, a crook, a bastard, but apparently a wonderful, warm man. His marriage to Givens? They were too young. His stint in jail? It was no fun. He saw people do awful things to each other. Lots of “skullduggery” as he repeatedly put it. This is all supposed to be the real truth, but it is really so much PR nonsense. Apparently shot over 5 consecutive days (and badly at that, not only does half of it look like a PSA, it is not a flattering use of digital video), it appears Toback never was willing to step back and ask Tyson or maybe force him to answer tough questions. Taking some time off and watching the footage he had certainly would have helped. Instead, Toback constructs Tyson as a lowbrow comedy, allowing for silly irony (“very few of my friends are still functioning”) and “what will he say next?” wackiness at the fight press conferences. The laughter from the audience at his vitriol towards a reporter at the Lennox Lewis pre-fight conference, especially at the famous line, “I’ll fuck you til you love me, faggot,” was more than a little disturbing, but it might have been intentional, considering Toback’s open disdain for journalism. I could care less about how he feels about writers and other analysts, but he has little right to complain when his “in-depth” look is such a whitewash. Calling Tyson trite would be high praise.