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Film Review: 'Tyson'

The antihero: former fighter Mike Tyson in James Toback's documentary.
The antihero: former fighter Mike Tyson in James Toback's documentary. (By Larry Mcconkey -- Sony Pictures Classics)
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By Desson Thomson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 8, 2009

"Tyson" is our deepest, most intimate encounter yet with Mike Tyson -- a guided tour through his checkered life with the former prizefighter acting as his own narrator. But though this confess-u-mentary tells us much about Tyson, it reveals infinitely more about our own internal contradictions.

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We also destroy the things we love, repeat mistakes and dance like Muhammad Ali around the truth in our most candid moments. It's just that Tyson does it more spectacularly -- or disastrously -- than most.

Caught in the primeval glare of a man who admits he'd visualize punching holes through his opponent's heads, we're riveted. This is our one-on-one with the Minotaur, the monster, Iron Mike. But as Tyson fixes his gaze on that poetic, reflective zone just beyond the camera and spills everything, he becomes inconveniently human. And that's what makes James Toback's film so powerful. We're as moved as we are appalled.

We feel for the shy, asthmatic kid who was robbed and beaten up in the mean streets of Brooklyn. We tear up at his account of Cus D'Amato, the hard-bitten, soft-centered coach (straight out of Central Casting) who took him out of juvie and into the ring. D'Amato turned him pro. Gave him self-esteem. But never lived to see Tyson become world champion at 20. Who could not be moved at the way Tyson stifles sobs as he tells this story?

Yet, what do we do with the Tyson who served three years in jail for the rape of Desiree Washington? (He calls her a "wretched swine of a woman.") Who chewed off a portion of Evander Holyfield's ear in that infamous title bout? (Holyfield head-butted him illegally, so he got mad. He blacked out, too.) Who claims he was burning up with gonorrhea -- after a liaison with a hooker -- when he won the WBC title? Whom we see captured in camera footage, screaming with rising homophobic hysteria at a heckler? (No explanation for that one.) And what are we to make of this utterance: "My insanity is my only sanity"?

This man's a nightmare when the mood hits.

Toback, who featured Tyson in "Black and White," a 1999 documentary about white people's fascination with hip-hop culture, is clearly in Tyson's camp. (Tyson's also an executive producer of the movie.) The only negative testimony from the aggrieved women in his life amounts to a Barbara Walters interview in which then-wife Robin Givens describes Tyson as manic depressive, abusive, scary. ("I can't believe Robin Givens was saying all those lies about me.")

As for Tyson's indiscretions, assaults and imbroglios, we're to see them as part of a redemptive arc. Tyson's been lost ever since his beloved mentor passed away, forever slithering on the slippery slope between his best and worst impulses. Hence the downward spiral of predatory womanizing, drug and drink binges and licentious spending. Hence his inevitable losses and stumbles. Hence everything.

He's turning things around. Proud father of six kids. Looks forward to a grandchild. As he says this, birds twitter on the soundtrack. The leaves of a hedge behind him meld into a mushy, Hallmark-esque backdrop.

We want to believe Tyson has come to terms with his mistakes; that he's a changed man. What we get, instead, is a distressing glimpse into the soul of a haunted, angry, bitter man whose inability to truly grasp his role in the equation of his mistakes has caused untold tragedy to himself and many around him. For all his candor, lurid honesty and tortured self-analysis, Tyson reveals only one thing: There are few things more fraught with myopia than our own reckoning of ourselves.

And as he mentions his rising debts over and over again, we wonder: Did he recently arrive at this moral epiphany in his life, or does this art-house howl of the heart -- already a cause celebre in festival circles -- help the debt-strapped former heavyweight in other ways?

Attached to our negative impressions, however, there's always a nagging asterisk. We realize this movie isn't about the redemption of Mike Tyson. It's about his incontestable hopelessness -- an extreme version of our own. Tyson remains as poignantly human as he is mortifying. He affects us, despite everything.

Tyson (90 minutes, at Regal Gallery Place, Bethesda Row and Shirlington 7) is rated R and contains profanity and sexual references.


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