Bite Club

James Toback’s weird documentary of Mike Tyson.

Mike Tyson

Tyson (Sony Pictures Classics), James Toback’s hall-of-mirrors portrait of the former world heavyweight champion, ex-con, ear-biter, and public train wreck Mike Tyson, is a puzzlement. It’s a movie that’s thought-provoking without being intelligent and candid without being truthful. The same aesthetic choices that Toback seems convinced will set his documentary apart are also what diminishes its credibility. Rather than stitching together old footage of Tyson’s glory days in the ring with a Ken Burns-style lineup of talking heads (God knows there is never a shortage of educated people waiting to gas on about boxing), Toback condenses them all into a single head: the shaved, Maori-tattooed, battered-but-still-handsome pate of Tyson himself.

This approach in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily have doomed the movie to failure. Many of the best documentaries of recent years have been those that blew open the objectivity of conventional nonfiction filmmaking. But as an interview subject, Mike Tyson is such an absurdly unreliable source, such a blend of self-aggrandizement, self-pity, manic self-disclosure, and barely suppressed rage, that spending an hour and a half alone in a room with him (even Toback, who presumably conducted the interviews, is never seen or heard) feels suffocatingly claustrophobic. Seated amidst leopard-print throw pillows on a white sofa, Tyson begins with a matter-of-fact, horrific account of his chaotic early childhood in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.: a father who abandoned him at age 2; a mother whom Tyson barely mentions, describing her only as “promiscuous”; his first fist fight with an older boy who killed his pet pigeon (“I won,” he recalls with touching pride); a stint in juvie at age 12 for dealing drugs.

An early segment devoted to Tyson’s apprenticeship with boxing trainer Cus D’Amato is the easiest part of the movie to like. He describes how D’Amato fine-tuned his strength and speed in the ring, built up his confidence with a constant stream of ego-building praise, and became his legal guardian when Tyson lost his mother at the age of 16. Tyson’s account of D’Amato’s death in 1985, when Tyson was only 19, is wrenching; though he never says so outright, it’s clear that his first trainer was the only person by whom Tyson ever felt loved.

Once Tyson’s meteoric rise begins (he won 26 of his first 28 fights by knockout, 16 of those in the first round), there’s a lot more footage available to supplement those endless close-ups of his filibustering head. We see the young, graceful, untouchable Tyson winning one title after another and becoming one of the first modern multimedia sports celebrities. (He was the object of a Nintendo game and appeared in a video with rapper Canibus.) But Tyson’s time at the top was very short; after an unexpected and devastating knockout by Buster Douglas in 1990, he never again held the undisputed title.

A few minutes of the interview, and some tabloid-TV excerpts, are devoted to Tyson’s allegedly abusive one-year marriage to actress Robin Givens. In a joint interview with Barbara Walters from the early ‘90s, Givens earnestly describes their life together as “worse than anything you could possibly imagine” as Tyson sits beside her, silent but visibly seething. In a famous clip from a 1997 match that, even in our YouTube age, remains stomach-churningly shocking, Tyson bites a chunk out of his opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear, not once but twice—and, incredibly, is allowed to continue fighting after the first bite.

It’s understandable that Tyson wouldn’t want to linger on the circumstances that led to his rape conviction in 1992, for which he served three years in prison. But even if, as Toback has suggested in interviews, he believes Tyson was innocent, it’s disgraceful how easily the director lets his subject off the hook with a single sentence about being falsely accused by “that wretched swine of a woman.” If Toback believes Tyson’s conviction was a setup, he’s free to make that case, but simply dismissing the victim, Desiree Washington, with an insult makes the movie look like a creepy exercise in logrolling.

The showboating Toback ( Fingers, Black and White, When Will I Be Loved) is enamored of a split-screen technique in which several different Tyson-heads are shown speaking simultaneously, their words overlapping from adjacent windows on the screen. The point, I guess, is that there are many different and contradictory Mike Tysons, which is indisputably true—you never have any idea what the guy is going to say next, and just when he’s alienated you with his coarseness, he wins you over again with his damaged honesty. But given the lack of any outside voices to broaden the film’s perspective, all these Brady Bunch boxes accomplish is to underline the project’s essential solipsism.

James Toback has hit pay dirt in one sense at least: For all his moral blind spots, Mike Tyson is a mesmerizing interview subject. He’s as impossible to stop watching as a bonfire or a raging sea. Tyson can wax analytical when he chooses—he provides a remarkably detailed description of his sexual tastes, which involve a precise admixture of domination and submission. His vocabulary is a blend of formal, high-register language (skullduggery is a favorite word, as in “I know the art of skullduggery”) and lacerating streams of profane invective (boxing promoter Don King is a “wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker,” and a fan who dares heckle Tyson at a 1995 press conference is repaid with an impressively creative torrent of obscenities). After 88 minutes in Tyson’s head, I was drained, and he’s been trapped in there for 42 years. Consider my skull dug.

Slate V: The critics on Tyson and other new releases