What the documentary “Tyson” lacks in insight, it attempts to make up for with access: emotional (and often volatile) one-on-one interviews with the eponymous heavyweight champion, a variety of Tyson-sympathetic talking heads, and illuminating archival footage that traces his rise to athletic fame. Told over the course of a slim running time, “Tyson” tries to cram a decades of tragedy, controversy, pain, and success into a tidy package, complete with a feel-good ending that does little to dispel the truncated treatment of the more horrific elements of Mike Tyson’s life. It ends on a high note for the troubled star, with an eye towards a bright (and perhaps unexpected) future, temporarily diverting enough to make the film itself feel revelatory.
That’s “Tyson,” the James Toback-directed documentary from 2008. It is also, strangely enough, David Michaels’ “Tyson,” a new documentary about the former boxing superstar that offers almost exactly the same film as Toback’s — same title, same problems, same arc — a decade later. The only real difference between the two is the talking heads (though the ones that are missing are damning) and more screen time dedicated to Tyson’s “Hangover”-driven resurgence in popular culture. While Toback’s documentary provided a look at the champ just before he returned to the public’s good graces thanks to a cameo in Todd Phillips’ comedy hit — complete with tigers and that signature face tattoo — the similarities between the two films is baffling.
And yet at least some of Michaels’ documentary predates the Toback project: in 2003, Michaels was the producer of an episode of AMC’s sports documentary series “Beyond the Glory,” which similarly attempted to unpack the Tyson mythos. While that episode was also compelled by first-person interviews with the former champ and his inner circle, it at least offered insight from former Tyson confidants who weren’t necessarily happy to only sing his praises, including ex-wives Robin Givens and Monica Turner. Neither woman appears in Michaels’ latest effort, making it far too easy for both Tyson and his friends to toss off horrible assessments of them with no one on hand to hit back.
The film’s opening sequence promises something different, however, with a seemingly candid and often confrontational Tyson racing through the topics that will be covered in Michaels’ documentary. Alternately crying, swearing, and staring head-on into the camera — Tyson’s many interviews are lit so that he’s the only thing in focus, and even the dark background melts away — the boxing star and former criminal is impossible to turn away from. While Michaels’ truncated documentary draws a straight line through Tyson’s life, all the better to zip through a fraught existence with the minimum of genuine reflection, even Tyson balks at connecting the dots so easily, instead viewing his life through a thematic lens, a series of stories involving people “fucking with him.”
Perhaps that’s true, but it’s a concept Michaels fails to interrogate, instead ceding narrative control over to Tyson and a series of talking heads who only spout facts (or, at least, their idea of “facts”) about Tyson’s life, barely considering the deeper implications of a story that demands more introspection. It’s hardly a glossy story, but it is glossed over; while it attempts to be comprehensive, surveying the biggest events — both good and bad — in Tyson’s life and career, it’s so fast and shallow that nothing is given proper attention. While Tyson’s sobriety and strengthening relationship with his wife have apparently made him a better man, tragedy has inevitably aided it too, including the accidental death of his daughter Exodus, which his son Miguel points to as a major point in Tyson’s growth. The access Michaels has to Tyson is remarkable, but the insight far too thin.
Tracking his current life as a self-professed “tennis parent” all the way back to a tough childhood in “crime-infested” Brooklyn, “Tyson” is a Cliffs Notes version of a much bigger story. Little insight is given into his career (a handful of big bouts are raced through, the ear-biting misadventure with Evander Holyfield gets the most screen time, and even that’s not enough), though some key archival footage shows off Tyson’s inherent athleticism — even now, it’s remarkable how fast, how big, how skilled he was as just a teen — more than any chattering talking head ever could. There’s no question Tyson has been subjected to tremendous tragedy, and if anything, “Tyson” is less about people “fucking with him” than people being taken from him, from his mother to his beloved manager and trainer Cus D’Amato, all of whom haunt the film and Tyson himself.
For all the depth of feeling Tyson is able to conjure in regards to his own trauma, crying and screaming in equal measure, both Tyson the man and “Tyson” the film have little interest in digging into the pain of others in his life. The film demonizes Tyson’s first wife Robin Givens, as members of Tyson’s inner circle blithely accuse her of a variety of misdeeds, from overtly using him for his money to lying about being pregnant when they got married to inventing (very public claims) that he was abusive and manic depressive. Tyson’s reflection on the 1988 Barbara Walters interview in which Givens said as much, while he sat next to her on a plush couch? “I feel like kicking her in the fucking head, but of course I wouldn’t dare.”
Later, Tyson’s rape accuser Desiree Washington is billed as one of many women “clawing” at each other to get to the champ during the 1991 Miss Black America pageant where the pair met (“Tyson” includes some chilling archival footage of the two before the crime that ultimately sent Tyson to prison for three years, but Michaels seems unaware of how to frame such compelling material). Tyson’s own biographer, Larry Sloman, uses the segment to engage in some casual victim blaming, while Tyson at least offers a version of the story that involves no criminal activity and alleges his victim only accused him because she was mad he didn’t walk her out of his hotel. Tyson’s take: “Bullshit lies!”
It’s all a little unsettling and strange. No matter how one feels about the accusations of abuse, violence, and rape that followed Tyson for decades, “Tyson” provides zero fresh insight. The documentary covers well-trod ground with little new to say (even when Tyson himself is nattering away about all manner of things). “Tyson” only gets somewhere new and revelatory in its final act, as the boxer opens up about his struggles with sobriety, the love of his wife Kiki, and his hard-won dedication to his offspring. Late in the film, Tyson sits down with a group of wide-eyed high schoolers to talk about his path, and when he starts crying in front of the shocked kids, it’s the only time “Tyson” pulls no punches, and hits hard.
“Tyson” world premiered at the 2019 DOC NYC festival. It is currently seeking distribution.