- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

When James Toback’s Tyson premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it was received by the oft-mercurial audience with a standing ovation that lasted for almost 10 minutes. Needless to say, Mr. Toback was pleased: His interviews with Mike Tyson had obviously struck a chord with a huge number of people.

Tyson was less impressed.

“I was kind of shocked,” Mr. Toback says when asked about Tyson’s reaction to the applause. “I thought Mike was going to say what I said, which was that it was sensational, that he wished it could have gone on for 12 minutes, 15 minutes. And he said, ‘Well, my good voice was saying this is great. My evil voice was saying these white [guys] don’t mean this, they’re just [messing] with me, they’re just humiliating me and embarrassing me and leading me, and they don’t really mean this.”

In the end, Tyson’s evil voice won out.

This is the inner life of Mike Tyson, a cacophony of sound and fury and confusion. Mr. Toback’s documentary — a simply shot set of interviews that intercuts footage from previous television interviews and his boxing matches — provides a revealing glimpse into that maelstrom.

Mr. Toback has known the former champ for almost a quarter century, following him through his meteoric rise and fall and staying in touch now that he’s keeping a lower profile. The documentary grew out of the late-night phone conversations the pair routinely shared.

“Within 20 seconds we were talking about death, madness, murder, love, revenge,” Mr. Toback says. “There was no transition. We would just get into it right away. And I think we both felt that the movie would basically be an extension of that.”

The result was something like a psychoanalysis session, where Mr. Toback would simply get Tyson started on a subject and then let him talk, allowing the cameras to soak up the images while leaving the crafting of a narrative for later, in the editing bay.

“I thought of it as a Freudian exercise, because I was in psychoanalysis in my twenties,” explains Mr. Toback. In the relaxed and recumbent state of disinhibition induced by the analyst’s couch, “I found myself saying things that I was shocked by,” he recalls.

Mr. Toback applied the same technique to Tyson and, even though he’s known the boxer for a long time, was surprised by some of the revelations. “I had no idea he was so fearful,” Mr. Toback says of Tyson’s feelings while in the ring. “He talks about fear almost more than he talks about anything else. ‘I was afraid, I was afraid, I was so afraid.’”

This will come as a shock to anyone who remembers Iron Mike in the ring: One of the most enduring images of Tyson is his pre-fight routine in which he would simply stare down his opponent. The look was always interpreted as one of unadulterated rage, but apparently it hid a reservoir of fear.

Mr. Toback points to a childhood trauma as the source of that fear.

“He must have been some sort of childhood asthmatic because what he’s describing [in the movie] is an asthmatic condition,” says Mr. Toback. “I had asthma when I was a kid. You know, you panic because you don’t know what’s happening. You can’t figure out why all of a sudden you can’t breathe. You feel all of a sudden like your head’s being dunked underwater.”

Mr. Toback thinks this is why Tyson came out so ferociously during his fights, working to knock out people in the early rounds (44 of his 50 career wins were knockouts, and none of his first 17 fights lasted longer than five rounds).

“That’s a source of tremendous determination,” he says. “You either retreat back into real dependent helplessness — I need oxygen, I need help, please come over here and help me — or you get ferociously determined to knock out anything in you way, because lurking in your unconsciousness is the idea that at any given moment” — here, Mr. Toback made some wheezing noises — “you’re gonna be like that.”

Of course, defeating people quickly while in the ring goes hand in hand with hurting them. Badly.

“I’ll tell you the fascinating line in the movie — the thing about driving the jaw through the skull, and then saying right after that it’s not as brutal as it sounds, it’s just part of the craft of boxing, the art of boxing,” Mr. Toback says.

The brutality of the craft and the reality behind the legend draw us to Mr. Toback’s subject, just as he knew it would.

Sonny Bunch

Vets and ‘Valor’

In the wake of countless films, fiction and nonfiction alike, criticizing the purpose and conduct of the Iraq war, one conservative production company has now produced a documentary honoring the men and women who have fought in it.

Citizens United Productions’ latest film, “Perfect Valor,” recounts the fight to control Fallujah through high-definition war footage and stories told by veterans who participated in Operation Phantom Fury and their family members.

“I have the unique opportunity to combat what the left does to our veterans, which is to make them out to be the worse of what America has to offer instead of the greatest,” says David Bossie, president of Citizens United Productions. “We went out to find their stories and tell the human side of these soldiers, both in their service and their life at home.”

The film, narrated by former Republican presidential candidate and Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, will premiere at the GI Film Festival at 7 p.m. on May 16. It also is available for purchase at www.perfectvalor.com.

This is the latest in a string of conservative films produced by Citizens United. The company is working on its third film with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The first two were about former President Ronald Reagan and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The final one will be about Pope John Paul II, because as Mr. Bossie said, “These are the three people who when all is said and done were instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Another of Citizens United’s films, “Hillary: The Movie,” about former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, is being reviewed by the Supreme Court. All Citizens United films have a conservative perspective that their opponents argue amounts to electioneering, and the case will determine whether those films should be regulated by campaign-finance laws.

A ruling is expected soon that could affect all of Mr. Bossie’s films, which total 11 so far. Mr. Bossie is confident the court will rule in his favor.

Amanda Carpenter

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