Movies · Reviews

Sundance Review: ‘Tyson’ is More PSA than Documentary

By  · Published on January 16th, 2009

There is something so unintentionally funny, yet terrifying about the monster that is Mike Tyson. We all know him as one of the most controversial sports figures of our time, though there are many different perspectives to be had. One perspective is that of sympathy, for a troubled youth from the bad neighborhoods of Brooklyn thrust into the spotlight and driven mad by his own social withdrawn nature and the fear of the world around him. Others see Tyson as a monster, a criminal, a violent threat to society both in and out of the ring.

In his intimate documentary, Tyson’s good friend director James Tobak (Black and White, Love and Money) has chosen to paint the former champ in the most sympathetic light possible. Mixing archival footage with up close and personal interviews from Tyson’s California home, Tobak’s documentary puts a painstaking amount of effort into presenting a singular point of view on the events, both triumphant and tragic, of his life. And for moments at a time, it works. There are moments when we can connect with the pain felt by a young Mike Tyson, a boy who was raised into a life of crime by the environment in 1970s Brooklyn. We can connect with the love that Tyson felt for his mentor and trainer, the late Cus D’Amato. We can also even connect with Tyson’s struggle with his fear of other people, his issues with trust and his deviant sexual tendencies.

Unfortunately the moments of connection are fleeting as the documentary slowly erodes from intimate portrait to a sort of public service announcement on Tyson’s behalf. In a Q&A after the Sundance premiere, director James Tobak was asked why his movie didn’t include any interviews from the people around the former champ — including, but not limited to any of his ex-wives, trainers, agents, etc. — he explained that he didn’t want to bring others in because they so often ‘lied’ about what really happened. There is some honesty in the film, including Tyson’s admission of having Ghonerreah before his first big title fight, but it all seems like shock deflection. When it came to the most controversial moments of Tyson’s life, Tobak’s doc allows him to pass by and say “I didn’t rape that girl” and spends only a few moments touching on his torrid domestic issues with first wife Robin Givens. It is enough to leave the discerning viewer wanting more.

In the end Tobak’s documentary spends its first half being an exciting look into the rise of a champion and creation of a monster, but squanders whatever momentum it had in its second half by beating us over the head with Mike Tyson the victim. And we get it, at least for a short time, that Tyson’s life has been hard. Unfortunately we are left with the feeling that there is more to be revealed, more under the surface, more that would have been found had Tobak — an admitted long time friend of the boxer — really set out to make anything more than a one-sided puff piece. For any great fan of boxing or general Tyson gawker, this film will serve as a solid way to spend 90 minutes once it makes its way to HBO or Showtime. But for the discerning moviegoer it is easy to see that Tyson is a documentary less focused on substance and more focused on selling us a singular point of view.

Related Topics: ,

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)