The face of Mike Tyson stares out from the screen like a sentry — intent, sober, watchful. The camera sits close, the framing is tight, and as we lock eyes with the former heavyweight champ who could shatter an opponent's confidence with little more than a glance, he seems to look past us into some unfathomable void. “The first question we ask is, 'Who am I?'” says the voice — unmistakable, unusually soft and high for a man — on the soundtrack at the start of Tyson. It is a question Tyson asks of himself many more times over the following 90 minutes, although the closest thing to an answer comes relatively early, in an excerpt from an interview given by the boxer when he was still a teenage phenom on the rise: “Nobody really knows Mike Tyson.” Nobody, including Mike Tyson himself.
Directed by James Toback, who previously cast Tyson in his dramatic features Black and White and When Will I Be Loved, Tyson isn't a traditional documentary portrait so much as a feature-length interview in which the retired boxer, save for a sprinkling of archival footage and a montage of his famous fights, remains front and center for the entire running time. The only talking head is his own, albeit one that speaks in multiple, sometimes self-contradictory voices. In recent nonfiction cinema, the film's closest precedents are the Austrian-made Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary and Errol Morris' Robert McNamara tête-à-tête, The Fog of War. But whereas the former film had the feeling of a confession and the latter of an interrogation, Tyson is more like a particularly riveting therapy session, with Tyson as both analyst and patient.
The movie covers a lot of ground, some of it familiar — Tyson's early years as a bullied, fatherless youth on the tough streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn; the petty criminality that landed him in an upstate New York juvenile facility; the redemption he found in the person of septuagenarian boxing trainer Cus D'Amato — but much of it not. Even boxing fans who feel they know everything there is to know about Tyson may be surprised by the bracing candor with which he dissects his desire to fight (“I was afraid of being that way again … of being physically humiliated in the street again”), his penchant for overindulgence (“I have to live at the top of the world or at the bottom of the ocean”), his 1992 rape conviction on charges brought by Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington (“that wretched swine of a woman”), and the 1997 Evander Holyfield bout that ended with part of Holyfield's ear on the canvas (“I was totally insane at that moment”). Often, Tyson is most revealing when he doesn't intend to be, as when he refers to the $14 million settlement he received from his 2004 lawsuit against Don King as “a small amount of money.” Likewise, Toback's film is as absorbing for what it addresses directly as for its underlying and irresolvable questions of race, sexuality, and violence in American society.
In 1989's The Big Bang, his sole previous nonfiction film (though nearly all of his films have been veiled autobiography), Toback himself was everywhere, frequently on camera asking his subjects about the origins of the universe and the nature of existence. In Tyson — a movie about a cosmos of one — Toback is present only by his absence, smartly getting out of the way of his powerhouse subject in a manner that many a more seasoned documentarian would have been too predetermined to do. Probably, Tyson did not require much prompting — from the film's earliest moments, he has the air of a man eager to unburden himself. What he did need — what Tyson would have been unthinkable without — was someone he could talk to; a fellow traveler on the path of obsession and desire who could wear down the calluses Tyson has built up over decades spent as a mass-media punching bag; someone willing to take Mike Tyson explicitly on his own terms.
Those terms are constantly in flux, for Tyson is nothing if not a Heisenbergian particle, like all the surrogate Bob Dylans of I'm Not There rolled into one — and Toback is much too smart to pretend to give us “the Mike Tyson we never knew” or any similarly reductive postulation. Toback doesn't come to lionize or to demonize, to goad his subject into a tearful breakdown (though Tyson does cry) or climactic Frost/Nixon apologia, or even to suggest that Tyson has anything to apologize for in the first place. Instead, he gives us Iron Mike in all his monolithic multitudes and allows us, for a brief moment, to peer alongside him into the existential abyss.