Until I saw "Tyson," I wouldn't have believed it possible to film a one-sided documentary that felt truthful and complete. But writer-director James Toback pulls it off--maybe because he never thought of it as a documentary. Capitalizing on his 20-year friendship with the infamous boxer, Toback crafted what he calls a "self-portrait." He took a psychoanalytic approach, asking questions from behind Mike Tyson and then letting the cameras focus on the boxer for 45 minutes or so per question, so Tyson could tell his own story in this tightly edited film. Maybe 10 minutes of that time Tyson actually talked. The rest of the time he was captured on film just breathing . . . and presumably thinking. The technique was aimed at helping the verbally challenged Tyson tap into his subconscious and articulate, maybe for the first time, issues about his personality, his relationships, and his actions in and outside the ring that he might have been content to ignore all these years.
While we never hear the questions--only Tyson's voice and face on-camera--at times it does feel as if we're watching him experience a "breakthrough." He goes through a range of emotions, from fighting back tears as he talks about the influence of his elderly trainer and mentor, Cus D'Amato, to a bitter denouncement of "that wretched swine of a woman" (Miss Black Rhode Island, Desiree Washington) whom he was convicted of raping in 1992. Though Tyson is shown almost exclusively on-camera and you wouldn't think it would work listening to someone who has a distinctive lisp talk for most of a 90-minute film, it's all pretty mesmerizing--in part, because of Toback's technique. Just as Ken Burns had his unique way of making still photographs seem more interesting, Toback solves the problem of a single subject on-camera by constantly varying the image using quick cuts from the different interview sessions and also multiple screens showing Tyson as if he were the subject of a Cubist painting--with different facets viewed simultaneously in order to present a truthful representation of the subject. Sometimes, we even get different voice feeds as the images are displayed, resulting in a slightly cacophonous effect. But it works.
The interviews were conducted over a five-day period in a house in Hollywood Hills and on a beach north of Malibu, shortly after Tyson crashed literally and figuratively in Phoenix and was put in rehab. Toback thought that he'd get his best chance filming Tyson while he was still straight, and his ground rules were simple: he'd put up the money, and so he'd have full and final say about what went into the film.
In several bonus features, Toback tells of Tyson's reaction after seeing the film in a private screening. He sat yoga-style in the aisle, and when the lights came on and he was asked what he thought, he said, "It's like a Greek tragedy. The only problem is, I'm the subject."
What makes "Tyson" so compelling is that you never know when this guy is going to say something insightful like that, and when he's going to lapse into Bushisms (as when he talks about meeting "the president of Istanbul," performing "fellatio" on Givens, or using "the most skullduggery of tricks"). Toback calls it Tyson's "odd relationship with language," and admittedly that's part of the attraction. He's unpredictable verbally, and the chilling thing is, as he speaks we realize that he's just as unpredictable and volatile in other aspects of his personality. That's why this one-sided documentary packs a pretty solid punch. As Tyson speaks, he unwittingly gives us both sides. One minute we're in his corner, and the next minute we're ready to run. When he talks about being a fat kid who was constantly bullied, we're sympathetic. And when he recalls the first time he fought back, after a bully wrung the neck of one of his pet pigeons right in front of him, your heart goes out to him. But just as quickly, the mood changes. "My job was to hurt people," he says matter-of-factly, and "the closer I get to the ring, I'm confident. Once I get to the ring, I'm a god. No one can beat me." On the Washington rape conviction, he says, "I may have took advantage of women before, but I never took advantage of her." You can almost hear the prosecuting attorney say, "I have no further questions, your honor," or, "I rest my case."
Tyson calls boxing promoter Don King "another piece of shit . . . slimy motherf**ker," and passes off his unconscionable response to Evander Holyfield's head-butting (the infamous ear-biting, not once, but twice during the fight) as "a blackout." He didn't know what he was doing, he says. He blacked out. But he does remember thinking that after Holyfield butted him, "I get so mad, I want to kill him." Moments later he says, "I lost my cool, my discipline," and invokes Cus D'Amato again . . . a father-figure who died shortly before Tyson became the youngest person ever to win the world heavyweight title at age 20--a record that still stands.
The film begins with footage of the Tyson-Trevor Berbick fight for the WBC heavyweight championship, during which Tyson knocked Berbick down for the first time in Berbick's career and made short work of him with an early KO. There's also footage of a few other fights, including two at the end of his career in which Tyson himself was knocked down and beaten. But action sequences aren't the focus. The boxing and archival footage of Tyson with D'Amato are used to break up the visual monotony and briefly illustrate what Tyson is saying. They never compete with images of Tyson on-camera for the main focus, and so understandably there are a lot of gaps. Don't expect a life story or full biographical treatment, because that's not what "Tyson" delivers. There's not much talk about the fight against Larry Holmes, whom he beat in 1988, nor Michael Spinks, whom he faced that same year. There's no mention, really, of the trainer who took over after D'Amato (Kevin Rooney) or Tyson's firing of the man. But we do get the loss to Buster Douglas in Tokyo that stripped Tyson of his title.
Still, this film is exactly what Toback set out to produce: a self-portrait of the boxer that's both riveting and revealing. At times the multiple images of Tyson can get a little tiresome, but Toback seems to know when that's happening and quickly pulls back into a single image or else inserts an archival photo sequence or clip. "Tyson" is rated "R" for "language including sexual references."
Tyson was filmed using Panavision Genesis HD cameras and Primo lenses, and so there's very little grain, even in the DVD version. The Blu-ray, as a result, is only slightly improved, with differences most noticeable in the shadows where detail stands out a little better. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is a good one, with close-ups showing all the detail on that Maori tattoo that Tyson has on his face. There's not much glare off the skin, either, though I can't imagine Toback patting pancake make-up on a guy like Iron Mike. But the skin tones and colors are true-looking and bright, and there's a pleasing 3-dimensionality. "Tyson" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
"Tyson" is mostly dialogue, and so the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio almost seems like window dressing . . . until some of those multiple feeds start in with simultaneous sound. It's possible, then, with this soundtrack to pick out a track and listen to it. Don't expect much involvement from the rear effects speakers, though, because there isn't much except when the fight scenes and beach stroll throws a little ambient sound their way. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.
Toback is full of stories, some of them repeats (like the Greek tragedy anecdote that turns up in several places), but some of them true revelations. He reminds us that Muhammad Ali, who was punished and embarrassed by Berbick in his last fight, whispered to young Tyson, "Get him for me" just before the fight. "I don't like the person I've become," Tyson says directly into the camera. "I know that I'm an insane individual when I put all that alcohol and drugs in me." Certainly some of it is attributable to drugs and booze, but Tyson still has a volatile temperament, and when Toback is asked in one of the features if Tyson might have turned out differently had the father-figure he idolized hadn't died before he won the world championship, Toback says, quickly and matter-of-factly, "No." He is who he is, and this film proves it.
Toback isn't quite as mesmerizing to listen to as Tyson, but he has enough to say that the time passes quickly. In addition to a full-length commentary, Toback appears in the 16-minute "A Day with James Toback" and "The Big Picture Show," the latter 13 minutes in which he is questioned by a host before and after the film is shown to an audience. In the former, there's footage of the L.A. premiere with Tyson, and Toback again appears in a roughly 11-minute feature, "Iron Mike: Toback Talks 'Tyson.'" All of the features are better than average, despite the repetition. Not all the questions are answered about the relationship that Toback has with Tyson, but we do get explanations of how the director cast the boxer in bit parts in some of his early films, and how they just kept in touch. And I'm sure if you asked Toback what his favorite moment was on the DVD extras, it's probably relaying how the audience at Cannes stood and applauded for 10 minutes (and many of the film executives who'd taken a pass on the film were in the audience). Talk about a satisfying moment.
"Tyson" is BD-Live enabled.
Toback reportedly offered older white women $100 if they left after five minutes of watching "Tyson." None in the audience did, and when you watch this surprising film, you'll know why.