Soft-spoken, contemplative, weepy, the subject of James Toback’s documentary “Tyson” – Mike Tyson, former heavyweight champion of the world – is not the ferocious, ear-biting, head-butting convicted rapist (“falsely accused,” he insists) that the media have painted him to be.
Well, he could be all that, too.
A hugely engrossing documentary portrait – albeit one with an unreliable narrator – “Tyson” is an American dream story with a decidedly bittersweet middle (and final?) act.
Here Tyson sits, his Maori warrior tattoo etched on his face, talking humbly about his Brooklyn childhood (running with gangs, going to juvenile prison). He gets choked up discussing Cus D’Amato, the trainer who coached him, nurtured him, changed him.
Culled from more than 50 hours of interview footage, incorporating film and video of many of Tyson’s pivotal matches (Michael Spinks, Evander Holyfield, James “Buster” Douglas), “Tyson” presents a complex man, teeming with contradictions.
Retired from the ring and 41 when the interviews were shot, Tyson says that as a kid he was bullied, that he learned to fight out of fear: “I’m just afraid of being … physically mutilated in the streets again.”
He talks about “the makeup of the mind.” He recites a poem by Oscar Wilde.
Toback runs a clip of the Barbara Walters interview with Tyson and then-wife Robin Givens, in which the actress calls her spouse a manic-depressive and labels their relationship “pure hell” while he sits silently.
In “Tyson,” he says the idea to get married was “disastrous.” He defends himself against the charges of rape by beauty queen Desiree Washington that sent him to jail for three years.
These are one man’s reflections – and memories – filtered by ego and age, by a need to right some wrongs. Still, there’s amazing candor here, and a sense that if Tyson is not always straight with the facts, emotionally he speaks the truth.