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"The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" is the story of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos. It's a study in deception, and as told by filmmaker Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), it's a disturbing and sad one.
Theranos sounds like a creature of myth, and in the end, that's what the company was. Appealing to the common fear of having blood drawn invasively in large amounts, Holmes spun an enticing pitch about building a compact, portable analysis machine named after Thomas Edison and able to perform 200 different kinds of tests quickly, using a pinprick's worth of blood. Holmes styled herself as a Mozart-caliber wunderkind. She started her company when she was barely old enough to drink. Within a matter of years, it employed 800 people and was valued at $10 billion.
Unfortunately, Holmes' machine couldn't do what she promised. She wasn't a scientist, and her own experts had warned her that it was physically impossible to build the device she'd envisioned. When a big deal with Walgreens' pharmacy chain was about to fall through over their impatience with Theranos' delivery schedule, her solution was a panicky end-run that involved secretly testing peoples' blood by conventional means, off-site, and then acting like the Edison machine had done the work. As described by Gibney and various expert witnesses, the whole scenario would've made for a classic farce were it not for the fortunes and reputations at stake—not to mention the possibility of going to market with a machine that put peoples' health at risk by delivering inaccurate results, and endangering the safety of technicians with goof-prone technology that could've punctured hands with errant needles, or tainted laboratory air with impurities released from broken sample tubes.
Despite the copious use of drone shots, a hypnotic, science fiction-sounding score, and some of the best explanatory computer graphics you'll ever see, "The Inventor" is ultimately more of an information delivery system than a fully satisfying work of cinema. The presence of one of documentary film's great innovators, Errol Morris, in the fabric of the movie itself—as a corporate gun-for-hire, Morris did a promotional video for the company—can't help but invite fantasies of what might've been. (The mind reels imagining an autobiographical movie about Morris, one of the great interrogators of war criminals and corrupt officials, coming to terms with his own paycheck-driven obliviousness to the incredible story sitting in front of his lens.) The movie never quite manages to crack the porcelain surface of Holmes' facade, despite the fleeting glimpses of insecurity and fear that sometimes flash through her eerily unblinking blue eyes. And at roughly two hours, it starts to grow repetitious. There are only so many ways to say, "In the end, there was no substance, and she fooled us all."
"The Inventor" also shies away from exploring the explosive gender politics at play. Whether this is due to lack of interest, a belief that a male filmmaker shouldn't be fixating on them, or a feeling that Holmes deserves the same treatment as a male scam artist is impossible to guess. But the viewer still may come away wondering if a great storytelling opportunity was missed. Holmes was an object of fascination and inspiration for many women in tech. As such, her downfall is deeply depressing, not just because she was a dishonest person—maybe even a compulsive fabulist—but also because of the implication that some of the older, extremely powerful men who championed her might've been smitten as much by her youth and conventional good looks as by her sales pitch. Their ranks included Henry Kissinger, former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Joe Biden, former defense secretaries James Mattis and William Perry, senator Sam Nunn, Fox News Channel founder Rupert Murdoch, and former Secretary of State George Shultz, whose grandson Tyler Shultz worked for Theranos and eventually turned whistleblower. When things started imploding, Holmes hired attorney David Boies to intimidate people who threatened to expose her.
In contrast, most of the women interviewed by Gibney—including Stanford University professor Dr. Phyllis Gardner, former Theranos lab technician Erika Cheung, and former Theranos receptionist Cheryl Gafner—appear to have sensed a bit more quickly that something was amiss. They come across as more aghast and disillusioned than all but a handful of the men who bought into Holmes' mythology. (One exception is Fortune magazine writer Roger Parloff, who helped make Holmes a tech superstar by doing a credulous cover story on her. As he recounts his reaction to a muckraking Wall Street Journal series by John Carryrou, we hear a catch in his voice.)
Briefly hailed as the world's youngest female billionaire, Holmes is now facing 20 years in prison on conspiracy and fraud charges. To paraphrase the final scene of the Coen brothers' satire "Burn After Reading," it's hard to say what we've learned from this mess, except never to do anything like it again. And yet, human nature being what it is, we surely will do it again.
One of the film's more intriguing unexamined assumptions is that Holmes' amphibious charm mesmerized people who should've known better. But on closer inspection, that notion doesn't hold up. Tyler Shultz, for instance, describes his granddad as a man who worked for two scandal-plagued Republican administrations—Richard Nixon's, which gave the world Watergate, and Ronald Reagan's, which produced the Iran-Contra conspiracy—and emerged "with his reputation intact," only to be fooled in his nineties by Holmes. If Shultz's biography is marked by a tendency to get involved with brazen and dangerous liars, his reputation should be marked by gullibility as well as integrity—and his championing of Holmes should seem all of a piece, not just with his own resume, but with the larger human story.
We all want something to believe in—and, as Gibney suggests, if nothing worthy of belief presents itself, we'll make do with a ripping yarn.