Tuesday, October 21, 2008

London Film Festival Day 7 - TYSON

TYSON is a documentary biopic about the legendary heavyweight boxing champion. The movie takes the form of an extended, frank and open interview with Tyson interspersed with archive footage of bouts and press conferences. Unusually, we don’t get any talking heads – sports writers, ex-wives etc – to give us an alternative perspective. With most subjects, this would have led to charges of bias, lack of perspective and hagiography. But that isn’t the case here because Tyson is incredibly open and self-critical and proves his best judge. The documentary is also very well edited.

The central thesis of the movie – and of Tyson – is that he was an insecure, bullied boy who grew up in the roughest of neighbourhoods where all he learnt was how to hustle. Thrown into juvenile detention, he would have ended up like all his schoolfriends – in prison for life, dead or a junkie – had it not been for a chance encounter with a man who taught him boxing and passed him on to trainer Cos D’Amato when he got out. By the age of 20, D’Amato had rebuilt Tyson from the ground up, rebuilding his self-confidence and turning his into a disciplined world-class boxer. The tragedy is that just as Tyson was unifying the title, D’Amato died, leaving him adrift and subject to “leeches”.

It’s testament to Tyson’s perspective that he never blames other people for his misfortune. He blames himself for letting leeches use him for his money and for being too young and immature to get married to Robin Givens. He blames himself for losing his title both before and after his prison sentence for rape – he was out of shape and deserved to lose. He blames himself that his two wives left him – he shouldn’t have been promiscuous. Indeed, he only seems to be genuinely angry at two people: the woman he was convicted of raping (he still protests his innocence) and Don King – who stole his money. Still, despite all the mellowness in maturity, the film-makers are careful to insert choice pieces of news footage showing Tyson completely losing it to show us how quickly his temper can flare up and how savage he could be.

Aside from his notorious personal life, the documentary is the most interesting when Tyson explains how he psyches himself up before a match and talks us through his most famous bouts (including the infamous ear-biting scene). I was most into boxing in the late 80s when I was a small kid, hanging out with my older cousins. Big fights were major occasions and we’d all gather at some ungodly hour – the whole family cheering. Those were the glory days for Tyson, when you could talk about his ferocity without any unpleasant double-meaning. It was great to see that footage again and hear how Tyson felt when it was happening. It was also pretty tragic to see him transformed into a show-pony, showing up in poor shape to matches for pay checks. I may be biased, and out of nostalgia, reluctant to give Tyson a hard time, but I found this documentary to be a fascinating and sympathetic look at a great pugilist and self-confessed flawed man. It’ll be interesting to see if it catches any flack for having no accusers on screen other than the man himself.

TYSON played Cannes and London 2008.

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