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March 21, 2020

Tyson (2009)
Director: James Toback

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Synopsis: Through his own confessional narration and archive footage, Mike Tyson’s life from the streets of Brooklyn to World Heavyweight Champion is charted.

Review: With the incredible raw materials that Mike Tyson’s life and remarkable boxing career present, James Toback had something of an ‘open goal’ in terms of a documentary on Tyson, and although he doesn’t exactly screw it up, there’s a sense that he’s trying too hard to communicate the themes of the Tyson story, when he should have just let the man and his deeds speak for themselves without directorial tricks.

Perhaps it’s because Toback is a bona fide auteur in his own right and one of the key figureheads of the New Hollywood Cinema in the ’70s, therefore he felt he wanted to leave his own imprint on the story – to transcend the conventions of regular documentary filmmaking. Toback’s thesis seems to be to get right inside the mind of Tyson – to see what makes him tick. So we move from his crime-ridden youth in Brooklyn, to his meteoric, animalistic rise up the boxing ladder, to his troubles with women, money and motivation when he was on top of the tree. The only ‘talking head’ we get on this narrative is Tyson himself, retrospectively. Toback telegraphs his intent to out Tyson’s obvious bipolarity and struggles with mental health through using split screens of Tyson’s narration, and, at times, overlapping recordings of the same Tyson testimony to almost over-demonstrate the hubris and mania he was feeling during various parts of his life.

More successful is when Toback takes a more stealthy back seat and lets the engrossing story speak for itself. There’s the remarkable chat show recording where Tyson’s wife, Robin Givens, describes Tyson’s ferocious bouts of domestic rage and violence without, presumably, clearing this with Tyson beforehand (Tyson’s calmly seething face is a picture during Givens’ account). Then there’s the boxing itself. Boxing purists will probably long for a more detailed and technical deconstruction of Tyson’s skills and success in the sport, but Toback’s method does emphasise how Tyson concentrated on his psychological aura when he entered the ring (leaving opponents cowered before the first bell had even rung) as much as relying on his strength, speed and other pugilist skills. The montage of Tyson destroying opponents in the first couple of rounds alone is testament enough to the fundamental allure that was to make him a household name in the first place. (March 2020)

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