Tyson – more of an open letter than documentary
I’m a firm believer that if you listen to ANYONE’s life story, you will hear tales of woe and start to empathise with them. That is the point. This makes the potential of documentaries dealing with life stories very sellable (even that of convicted rapists). Indeed to make them more sellable, it is wise to use a recognisable name.
With this in mind then is the highly acclaimed documentary simply named Tyson. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the subject matter. The former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson speaks about his life, his wins, his conviction, his losses and his ferocity. Speaking almost completely in monologue (intercut with historical footage) he shows you the man behind the name.
A mixture of original interviews and archival footage and photographs sheds light on the life experiences of Mike Tyson.
Before you begin to watch Tyson (the film) you reflect on the character that you have known from the press. We are all aware of how the press can somewhat taint a character, but it seems that Mike Tyson didn’t need a great deal of tainting. For my knowledge of boxing, I knew that he was a young heavyweight champion and the bad boy of the sport. He bit into Evander Holyfield’s ear and was convicted of rape. I had hoped for the documentary to cover the rape in more detail. Sadly, this subject was brushed past so quickly that you soon realise you are not watching a documentary. You are watching a verbal letter to the world. The subject of raping Desiree Washington is passed over with the slightest of derogatory comments about her. Nothing is challenged as no questions are asked on screen. There is nothing wrong with not hearing the questions but you feel that James Toback (director) could have challenged Tyson so much more.
We begin with a description of his childhood talking about his criminal past on the streets of Brooklyn and how he was taken under Bobby Stewart’s wing and subsequently Cus D’Amato. As the film allows Tyson to casually explain this history we are offered a rare insight into the emotions of the man. He speaks of his fear about embarrassment, vulnerability and the need to hide behind this angry persona. He speaks with great sincerity of his father figure and manager as a teenager and chokes onscreen. This is somewhat uncomfortable to watch as it shows how much Cus D’Amato meant to him through his inability to express himself clearly.
The audibly uncomfortable opening scene with a comic book visual feel and sound playing over each other is perhaps indicative of the confusion of the man himself. So much to say, it seems and so little time. It is certainly stylised and for a film that claims to be a documentary this gives an edge of unprofessionalism. This film is meant to be a peek into a man who is trying to find himself after realising most of his companions have betrayed his trust in some way or another. It is not meant to be a life story brushed over with all the messy bits ignored.
You can only suppose that the purpose of this film is to reveal the man behind the image and it does nothing to serve that. Unique footage merely talks to a more mature Tyson reflecting on his life with a great deal of self loathing. However this could have been made of anyone. Perhaps that is its true purpose: to make you realise that Tyson is just a man. For me though it had no depth.
I’ll admit that hearing Mike Tyson repeat poetry by Oscar Wilde is somewhat jarring. In fact seeing him in a tight close up to the screen is overwhelming. Certainly his discomfort in his own skin it seems, is something that could have been discussed.
The fact is despite this film being very stylish and ticking all of the boxes for emotion; it only tells half of the story. If we were to accept that everything Tyson says on film is carefully thought out we should still have Mr Toback himself asking difficult questions. Someone’s reactions to difficult questions being asked often tells you more than the answers they give.
I enjoyed Tyson. I really did. It is by no means perfect though and because it covers his life with certain omissions and allows him to freely talk it could never be considered a documentary. Documentaries are supposed to be impartial. They are supposed to be challenging and to ask the questions nobody dare to. Clearly James Toback didn’t do this.
Tyson (the film) is like watching Mike Tyson have the most challenging fight of his life; a fight that continues to this day: the fight with himself. I loved the style of the movie. I loved the comfortable atmosphere and Tyson’s ease with the camera. However I would have preferred more challenging questions being asked.
Rating: 4 out of 5