After things go really wrong in Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” one of his interview subjects jokes about developing a truth serum. Now there’s a million-dollar idea — maybe even a nine-billion-dollar idea. That was the astronomical valuation staked on a company called Theranos, founded by Silicon Valley darling Elizabeth Holmes, effectively making her the richest woman in the world. For tech startups, money like that is abstract, essentially fictitious. So, too, was Theranos’ Edison machine, a revolutionary diagnostic tool that promised to give patients a cheap way to test their blood for 200 diseases at their local drug store with just a finger-prick.
The Edison didn’t work. But that didn’t stop Holmes from reaping a fortune from investors — as well as the cover of Fortune magazine — because people wanted to believe. Especially in her. False belief, not phlebotomy, inspired Gibney’s blood-thirst to tell this story. Frauds and patsies are his life’s obsession, reflected in the director’s takedowns of everything from Scientology to Enron. Compared to those attack docs, “The Inventor” is more of a second-degree assault, scoring a few direct hits and a fair amount of whiffing at what proves to be a vaporous target.
On paper, Holmes looks like a ripe subject for Gibney: She was the female hero of a dude-heavy industry, a lithe, green-juice chugging blonde invited onto every panel to make grand pronouncements about how Theranos would save lives. She would come out dressed in a black turtleneck uniform, a nod to Steve Jobs, her curiously deep voice making her sound like Yoda, whose iconic phrase she paints in foot-tall letters at her Stanford Research Park headquarters: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Filming this curious spectacle, Gibney zooms in on her big, blue unblinking eyes, though his affection for a strategy that beams a ring light into her pupils feels a little unfair, making her look like a brainwashed Bambi.
To Holmes, impressions mattered. Good personal branding meant good business. When she convinced the Arizona Health Commission to change a code in order to distribute her Edison machines at Walgreens, a board member gushed, “You are magnificent!” Holmes glowed so brightly that even skeptics couldn’t make out the truth. Was her billion-dollar machine a lie? Or is she the biggest patsy of them all, an idealist who took Edison’s maxim about 10,000 failed tries as scientific fact? “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world,” insists Holmes, as though the equation’s been proven. Nevermind all the broken failures who might warn otherwise.
Gibney can’t decide if Holmes is a crook or just overdosed on her own ego. Mostly, he fills time with scene after scene of her posing at photo shoots while she waxes on about extending lifespans, or he gets loopy with voiceover, panning across her abandoned research campus as he intones, “You can almost hear the echos of her ambition.” Occasionally, he gooses the audience with a macro-closeup of a needle puncturing skin — with sound effects — and then rewards them with a laugh break like one of Holmes’ commercials where a small child bursts into tears of joy giving her grandmother a $25 Theranos gift certificate.
The best insight into what might be going on in Holmes’ wiring comes from behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who shares a study that pinpointed the circumstances that make a fibber pass a lie-detector test. What is clear, however, is that Holmes and her boyfriend/COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani ignored their own experts if they didn’t like the facts. They concentrated on the fun: celebrating good FDA news with a dance party to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” or channeling bad FDA news into a party-rage with the company chanting, “Fuck you!”
People did get hurt. Yes, among the victims were the bold-faced names who invested millions, like Betsy DuVos and Rupert Murdoch. But Gibney smartly seems more interested in the small-time folks who worked at the Walgreens or the doctors who saw their patients slip away to Theranos for crooked blood-work results. (Groans one, “There’s going to be a lot more syphilis in the world!”) One key Theranos employee, the renowned biochemist Ian Gibbons, killed himself in fear that he’d never work a respectable job again. His widow notes that Holmes, the supposed bleeding heart fending off death, never called with her condolences.
Then come the lawyers and whistleblowers and paranoia, much of which you could glean just as easily from reading one of the longform post-mortem articles on the company’s collapse. What Gibney offers is simply his suspicion that whatever afflicted Theranos and the curious case of the invention that never really was, is a contagion afflicting many hot-shot Jobs-ian CEOs. In other words, Holmes was neither a cure nor the disease, just the symptom.