This is not the kind of film Parabola usually reviews, and that is exactly the point. People see what they are conditioned to see, what they want to see. Tony Robbins is known for the kind of commercial self-help fare that Parabola and its readers usually look past without a sideways glance. Who among us would spend almost $5000 for a “Date with Destiny,” the 6-day Florida seminar that Joe Berlinger’s film vividly captures? People who are desperate to find a way heal, it turns out.
The opening scene shows Robbins talking with Matyas, a young man who has confessed that he wants to die. “If you give yourself just a little bit of time, and if you’ll be a little bit more loving to yourself, I think you’re going to find you have a lot to give,” he tells Matyas, who dissolves in tears of relief in Robbins arms. Watching this, it was impossible not to be moved. I was reminded that there is a kind of truth that isn’t thought but the energy of witness and understanding in action. In that scene, Robbins manifests a kind of truth that stands on two strong legs, gazing straight into a person without looking away.
A beautiful young woman named Dawn has sold everything that wasn’t nailed down to take part in the seminar. The victim of horrific sexual abuse growing up in the religious cult the Children of God, Dawn seeks proof that life can be worth living. Big, rugged Robbins towers over her, assuring her that he too has been broken and that what she has endured and survived can become a way to help others. He promises to help her on this way and encourages her to pick men in the audience to be her “uncles.”
I would love to see how Dawn and Matyas fare in a year or so, to learn how (and if) their transformations take root and flourish in the world beyond the embrace of Robbin’s attention and the pumped up conditions of “Date with Destiny.” I came away longing to know more about the forces and influences that shaped Tony Robbins. Yet I couldn’t doubt his prodigious gift for connecting with other human beings, for conveying who they might be beyond the prison of their pain.
The film has been wildly popular with viewers while critics have been ambivalent to downright nasty. Robbins himself shakes off these attacks. “There are too many that want help to worry about those who don’t,” Robbins tells the Guardian. Yet the vehemence directed towards Robbins and the film’s director raises a serious question.
In a review in The New York Times, director Berlinger is blasted for taking an “uncritical, hands-off stance,” creating an immersive experience unlike his earlier work. The reviewer makes special note of Berlinger’s superb “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which is “more focused on social injustice than mental swamps.” (An interview with convicted murderer Damien Echols, the subject of Paradise Lost, appears in Parabola’s “Justice” issue).
But why not make one work different from another? The intention that traditionally guides criticism is to discern what artists are attempting and judge how well they succeed. Berlinger has stated that in this film he seeks to convey the life-changing experience of a Robbins seminar, and that he has accomplished powerfully.
Many people these days speak of the Balkanization or fragmentation of the media. Thanks to the internet there is a wild proliferation of columns and views, including this one. And things seem to be getting more personal and meaner. “We don’t see the world as it is,” writes Anais Nin. “We see it as we are.” We live in a subjective digital age, not the Victorian age of the impersonal “God’s eye view.” Yet we can still seek to be more and see more. We can still seek a truth beyond our personal bias and pain. ♦