Let’s get something clear from the beginning—there are acts of great personal courage in HBO’s “The Vow,” a nine-part mini-series starting this Sunday, August 23rd. Coming forward to reveal stories of abuse and trauma takes bravery that not everyone has and if watching this series helps people deal with their own tragedies or even avoid them in the future then it has some inherent power. However, reviewing this experience comes down to the classic “content vs. form” argument when it comes to reviewing film, especially documentaries. Too often, critics are merely looking at the subject of a non-fiction film when they write about it, not the strengths or weaknesses of how it’s put together. So while it’s easy to laud the people who escaped NXIVM and destroyed a criminal, vile organization in the process, that doesn’t inherently mean that the series about them is free from criticism. What’s so frustrating is there’s probably a fantastic feature film about NXIVM that will someday be released or maybe a tighter 3-4 episode series, but nine hours of this story crosses from exhaustive to exhausting in “The Vow.” The amazing access to personal stories as they unfolded likely led directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer to err on the side of inclusion, but the repetitive, unedited nature of the series actually diminishes its intended impact.
In 2010, Noujaim attended something called the Executive Success Program, a seminar put on by a group called NXIVM, which promised not just career motivation but nothing short of personal enlightenment. Led by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, the group worked with a process called integrations, working coping techniques and therapy concepts into everyday life. Raniere was (allegedly, although you don't see much of it here) a charismatic leader who undeniably impacted the lives of people around him, even drawing the attention of the Dalai Lama, and landing a few celebrity clients, including Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack of “Smallville” fame. India Oxenberg, the daughter of “Dynasty” star Catherine, was a follower. Noujaim didn’t get too involved but kept in contact with some of the people she met. When rumors of horrible behavior started to surface in 2017, she went with Karim Amer to start filming and speaking to members of the group, having no idea what would be uncovered.
Most of the world found out about the vile underbelly of NXIVM through a New York Times story that ran in 2017, but “The Vow” is at its most powerful when it’s capturing what led up to that international revelation. It starts with a focus on Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmondson. Mark is a filmmaker, the co-director of the hit “What the Bleep Do We Know?!”, and someone who was drawn to the charisma of Raniere. Over the years, he rose the ranks of NXIVM in ways that men were rarely allowed to do, and it feels now like his placement in the organization hinged partly on his filmmaking ability. Raniere knew he needed help with his image as a shaky past and constant rumors of bad behavior haunted him. Meanwhile, Edmondson was an actress looking for guidance, charmed as well by people like Salzman and what they promised. Vicente and Edmondson would lead the whistle blowing that brought the organization down.
It turned out that embedded in this self-help cult was a deeper sub-cult of pure domination. Called DOS or The Vow, these sub-sects involved members being literally referred to as slaves, branded with the initials of Raniere, and sex trafficked. Members had to provide “collateral,” or blackmail material like naked photos or personal revelations, which would then be used to keep them in line. By the time everything was revealed, Raniere was convicted of crimes including sex trafficking, identity theft, production & possession of child pornography, racketeering, and more. “The Vow” captures it all as it’s exposed to the light, focusing heavily on the survivors like Edmondson & Vicente, while also spending a great deal of time with Oxenberg as she tries to pull her daughter from the grip of a cult leader.
Clearly, there’s a lot of interesting material to unpack here, including how people like Raniere rise to power through a mix of false promises and unchecked ego. Raniere forced members to refer to him as Vanguard, a sign from the beginning that what looked like it was about empowering others on the outside was always about feeding the needs of a madman. And yet Noujaim and Amer treat their subjects with notable empathy. Sarah Edmondson never imagined she’d allow herself to be branded, and her story is the most interesting throughline of “The Vow” in that even she seems startled by the steps that brought her to that point, serving as a cautionary tale about how this could happen to more people than we like to think.
The problem is that the cautionary tale could have been told in half the running time of this epic series, and it would have likely been more powerful. After an intense first two or three hours, “The Vow” really starts to spin its wheels, going over some of the same details, and watching as the players grapple with how to find justice and peace in real time. Again, I get the desire to bear witness to trauma but why do we need to see Catherine pick up her mother at the airport? It’s almost like the creators of “The Vow” thought that their subject was so serious that it would be insult to edit anything out of it. Shaping a story like the trauma and tragedy of “The Vow” could have given it even more power instead of just going with an approach of unrelenting access.
Still, there’s power in each episode of “The Vow,” even if it’s assembled in a manner than never completely worked for me. Looking through the form issues I have with the series and looking at the content, it’s a story that should be heard. Ultimately, all the hours of footage are nowhere near as powerful as an emotional moment in Vicente’s quivering voice when he considers his complicity or a look of uncertain trauma in Sarah’s eyes as she still grapples with how this happened. I won’t soon forget them.
Seven episodes screened for review.