Movie Takes

In Tyson’s Corner

A disgusting documentary about a washed-up fighter.

By 5.20.09

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Mike Tyson is no dummy, you know. He uses long and old-fashioned words like "skullduggery" -- which he uses to mean something like "head games" -- and he knows a lot about the history of boxing, which is the area of human endeavor to which he has made his great contribution and which, in return, has made him famous enough to be the subject of a film documentary, Tyson, by James Toback. Mr. Toback, himself a graduate of Harvard College, told an interviewer last year that Mr. Tyson was also a deep reader who

had spent long hours in solitary confinement reading works of great philosophers. His favorites these days are Machiavelli and Tolstoy. "Cool guys," Mr. Tyson said. "All these guys, for some bizarre reason, all these guys are in some bizarre pain. Machiavelli just wanted power. He wanted power and control. His whole game was about manipulation. Tolstoy was all about helping the poor. He was a Communist, while his wife was a capitalist. And they had big fights over this."

He can also, as you see from the above, use the words "bizarre" and "manipulation." Not to mention "wretched," as in, "that wretched swine of a woman," Miss Desirée Washington, whose evidence got him convicted of rape back in 1992, and so provided him with the opportunity for all that reading.

Impressive as these intellectual attainments are, the best argument for Mr. Tyson's high intelligence is that he knows exactly how to manipulate Mr. Toback (perhaps he learned it from Machiavelli), not to mention those who will come to watch his movie on the assumption that they are being thus be let into the secret of the real Mike Tyson, the Mike Tyson nobody knows who is not only intellectual but sensitive, thoughtful, introspective, scared, insecure and capable of a self-pitying tear when his long dead mentor, Cus d'Amato is mentioned. In short, the real Mike Tyson, is society's victim. He doesn't have to make the claim to victimhood, and can even take upon himself some small portion of responsibility for the ill-deeds and ill-luck of his life and career, rather in the spirit of Jimmy Buffett singing:

Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
But I know it's my own damn fault.

Not for the rape, however, does he take any responsibility, nor the assault for which he was sent back to prison some years later, which he never mentions. The set-up of the documentary itself prepares us to excuse its subject, simply for being the hero of his own story.

Mr. Toback's documentary exploits this structural expectation to the hilt, and he gives his film only one voice, the voice of Mike Tyson. At times this voice is multiplied, but it's still all just Mike. For, by dipping into the film-maker's black bag, Mr. Toback also produces contrapuntal versions of his voice so as to give, on at least one occasion, a simulation of incipient insanity -- making us hear along with Mr. Tyson voices in our heads, even though they are all the same voice. That there are times when he imagines the balance of his mind is disturbed is just one of the claims he makes upon our sympathy. Frequent use of split-screen imagery of Mr. Tyson's striking face, now framed by a Maori (or "Mao-ey," as he puts it at first) tattoo also creates the impression of multiple identities, while on the bottom horizontal we see a lonely figure -- Mike again! -- walking thoughtfully along a beach at sunset.

And let's not forget that other Mao-ey tattoo, the one of Mao Tse-tung, the well-known Chinese mass murderer who passed away peacefully, surrounded by his fellow gangsters, when Iron Mike was ten. Also the one of Che Guevara, which must be meant to align the street smart ex-champ with the oppressed college boys of the world. These two tattoos, he tells us, he got after being sent to prison for rape, thanks to the "wretched woman." The injustice of his conviction had led him to conclude that, as he puts it, "I had no faith in my government." He doesn't say whether or not he's got any faith in his government back since then. He also became a Muslim in prison, perhaps for the same reason, though we don't hear so much about his religious beliefs anymore either. It's all part of the "mystery" in which, at the end of Mr Toback's film, he enshrouds the fascinating question of what he will do next. Likewise, he kicks the whole thing off by observing: "The first question is, 'Who am I?'"

No, the first first question is, Who cares? Now reduced to palookahood ("I don't have the fighting guts anymore," he said after being knocked out by Kevin McBride in his last fight, in 2005), Mr. Tyson still, nevertheless, possesses a remnant of that undeniable charisma that is so apparent in the film's file footage from his heyday in the ring, now 20 years in the past. To my eye, his attempt to affiliate himself with society's victims only diminishes this magnetic quality further. Having lost the estimated $300 to $400 million he earned in the ring to a combination of his own profligacy and the creative accounting of various "leeches," as he no doubt rightly calls them, he is just another celebrity huckster trying to scrape a living by doing a public fan dance with what he imagines to be his endlessly fascinating human vulnerability. How much more interesting he would be if only he made the pretense of taking responsibility for his actions -- at least some of them -- into a reality for all of them. But then neither he nor Mr. Toback are likely to lose any money by betting that I'm in the minority on that one.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.