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Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley Traces the Fall of Theranos

Alex Gibney’s documentary tells a dramatic, if somewhat workmanlike, story of Silicon Valley hubris meeting old-fashioned scamming.

2.5
Chris Barsanti

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The Inventor
Photo: HBO

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration.

According to a personal narrative that was told through numerous glowing feature articles and TED talks, that was the kind of sentiment that powered Holmes through years of scouring for investors and trying to do everything humanly possible to make her dream of a simple, cheap, quick fingertip pinprick blood test a reality. The great difference between her and Edison, though, might well have been that while both were stubborn and also—to greater and lesser degrees—self-inventing fabulists, just one of the two actually invented things.

Dispensing with most of her early biography, The Inventor initially presents Holmes to us as the world first came to know her: the unblinking blonde with the hundreds of identical black outfits speaking about her passion project in a monotonous drone that recalls nothing so much as Mira Sorvino in Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Initially, Gibney paints this portrait of Holmes with a collection of media appearances and up-close interviews, the latter of which could have been conducted by the filmmaker himself, which would be surprising given the sharp negative turn the narrative takes toward its famously paranoid and media-controlling subject—or may have been repurposed from some of the Holmes-glorifying in-house promotional material Theranos hired Errol Morris to shoot.

Eventually, The Inventor gives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Holmes’s background—studious, quiet, gawkily intense—that only completes the portrait of an already familiar Silicon Valley archetype: the college dropout with a monomaniacal focus and poor social skills. Of course, the difference with Holmes was that, by not being some schlubby computer engineer in a hoodie, but an attractive blond woman, she secured acres of fawning press coverage and renown as a glass ceiling-smashing female entrepreneur.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the Holmes sales pitch that Gibney shows here. She repeatedly talked to audiences about her belief that quick and reliable health information was a “basic human right,” often referencing an uncle who died too young from a cancer that could have been detected earlier. To her thinking, making blood tests faster, quicker, and less scary—she herself calls the process of giving blood akin to “torture”—was the best way to further her goal.

The technology that Holmes envisioned was the kind of seamless, minimalist ideal that has been pursued since the invention of the iPhone. Instead of messy needles and tubes and waiting weeks to hear back from a faraway lab, Theranos promised that a tiny barcoded “nanotainer” could get your blood from a pinprick, after which it would be inserted into a testing machine—called, of course, an “Edison”—no bigger than a home printer, and return a full blood test in a matter of minutes. No matter that there was no reason to believe the technology could ever make this dream a reality. Holmes seemingly just followed the Silicon Valley model for impossible thinking: “Fake it until you make it.”

Except, as The Inventor reveals in its rather darkly comic second half, there was never any way that Theranos was going to be able to make it. According to the company insiders who appear in the documentary, having already blown the whistle to the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Carreyrou (also a top source for the film), the actual Edison machine was a Rube Goldberg disaster of broken instruments and splashing blood that was never close to ready for prime time. The gleaming glass walls of Theranos headquarters, Gibney deadpans in his typically dry narration, was more like a “labyrinth of mirrors.”

This sense of New Economy make-believe that allowed Theranos to chew through hundreds of millions in investor capital while the company’s technology continually failed to deliver on Holmes’s hyperbolic world-changing promises was aided by a curious wrinkle. According to writers who covered her giddy rise to power and appear somewhat chagrined in The Inventor, Holmes had a powerful ability to secure backing from powerful old men who then also staffed the Theranos board: General Jim Mattis signed on, as did George Schultz and even Henry Kissinger, who gushed about her “ethereal quality” like some besotted fanboy. Theranos may not have revolutionized anything in the end, but Holmes’s cult of personality was powerful enough to provide cover for behavior and actions that included extreme paranoia, the hiring of bodyguards, the monitoring of staff emails, and the bulletproofing of her office windows.

While The Inventor is filled with bright details and sharp asides that puncture Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing fabulism, it doesn’t make a strong enough attempt to get behind Holmes’s messianic aura. The basics of the Theranos case are laid out in clear reportorial fashion, and Gibney makes a brief stab at connecting Holmes to the long line of inventors who more than stretched the truth; Edison, for instance, pretended he had perfected the incandescent light bulb for four years before he actually had. But as with many stories about great American con artists, from Bernie Madoff to L. Ron Hubbard, the more one uncovers about their lies and subterfuge, the more the person’s character tends to recede. The Holmes of The Inventor appears to have been no different. Claiming to have found a way to change the world, while bullying and obfuscating her way around the unfortunate truth, Holmes may in the end have been only able to successfully invent a version of herself.

Director: Alex Gibney Distributor: HBO Documentary Films Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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