Sunday, June 22, 2014

Tyson (2008)

Director: James Toback

Many may disagree, but I think Mike Tyson is one of the most fascinating people of our generation. And this 2008 documentary presents him in ways that illustrate exactly why I find him so.

Between the ages of 12 and 15, I knew of Mike Tyson as nothing less than a force of nature. He was not only the heavyweight champion of the world (back when that title still held a good amount of heft), but he was known for annihilating opponents in the ring. World-class, enormous fighters who had trained for decades would get leveled by this smaller, unspeakable fast, powerful and ferocious kid in less time than it took the viewers to get through their first fight-time beer. The day that he lost his title to Buster Douglas in 1990 was as shocking to me as if someone had told me that the moon had exploded. Tyson's bizarre and tragic decline in the years after that loss have become the stuff of infamy.

At 22, Tyson became the youngest ever to win the
heavyweight title. This began a four-year span in which
he became one of the most dominant forces in sports in
the 20th century.
Tyson's life story has already carried more than one extremely interesting biopic, including the 2002 ESPN Outside the Lines series which focused on him. Of course, Tyson was still a semi-active boxer at the time, so his professional life was not yet finished. This more recent release offers the look back at a man who, at the time, had been three years fully retired from a the sport which he seemed to have been born to dominate.

This more recent documentary offers a more complete picture of a man who, though still only 47 years old, has been all of the following: Brutally poor, neglected and bullied child. Hardened street thug and thief. Repeat juvenile offender. The youngest undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Publicly (falsely?) accused wife beater. Drug addict. Expert boxing historian. Convicted (erroneously?) rapist. Muslim extremist. Philosopher. Bipolar disorder sufferer. Three-time husband. Father of six. Comedian. Broadway performer.

The story of a person who has been all of these things is interesting enough, but Tyson offers far more. The movie is told almost entirely in Tyson's own words, putting together various narratives, sound bites, and monologues given by the man himself as he recounts, reminisces, and reflects on his deeds and thoughts through his tumultuous rises and falls. And this is the real draw.

Those who mostly know of Tyson through the odd headline or occasional news bulletin about his more outrageous behavior are likely to have long ago labeled him "crazy." Or "an animal." Or things far worse. Such labeling is dismissive and ignorant, as Tyson clearly shows. Mike Tyson always has been, and still is, a strange and sometimes barely-coherent collection of a full range of human traits - rage, sorrow, joy, naivete, regret, profundity, profanity, lust, discipline, chaos, and more. When you listen to his words, often given in an almost-hypnotic stream-of-consciousness method, it is clear that there is intelligence and introspection, fractured and contradictory though it may sometimes be.

Tyson's infamous press conference meltdown in 2002. One
of many moments put in a different light in the film through
Tyson's narration.
One particular scene comes to mind. In 2002, Tyson was doing a press conference to promote his title fight against Lennox Lewis. During the Q and A, a reporter asked a question that greatly agitated Tyson, at which point Tyson went into a profanity-laced rage, nearly physically assaulting the reporter. When seen on its own merit, it seems very easy to come to two conclusion: (1) Tyson could have literally killed this man with his bare hands if his entourage hadn't held him back. (2) Tyson was a wild dog who would attack if he felt the slightest bit disrespected. However, the 2008 Tyson explains it differently. He calls himself "terrified" of people at that time. Once you hear him say this, some subtler details of the tirade become clear. His voice is cracking while he screams. He is actually on the verge of tears as he yells, "You wouldn't last two seconds in my world!!" From Tyson's own narrative of this event, it's clear that he is not talking about the realm of fighting, but the realm of his own mind. At that point in his life, his demons had been consuming him from the inside for nearly two decades. Hardly an enviable condition, especially when the person has moments of lucid introspection that offer the pain of awareness. Tyson offers this type of illumination several times.

It's hard to imagine another person even remotely like Mike Tyson coming around in my lifetime. This film may not be the exhaustive, definitive documentary about him when it's all said and done, but it offers the best first-hand account of the people and events that shaped him. Completely worth checking out for those interesting in boxing, sports, psychology, or just fascinating people.