Prolific documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief”) is fascinated by frauds, but Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes is out of his league. The disgraced entrepreneur isn’t the biggest crook he’s ever profiled — she bilked investors out of a measly $900 million — but her grift depended on the one thing that Gibney doesn’t often think to include in his kitchen-sink nonfiction: emotion. While “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” is another of its director’s lucid and ruthlessly straightforward forensic analyses, the film fails to engage with many of the fascinating questions it raises along the way.
Theranos was once touted as a company that had the power to change the world. Founded in 2003, the health startup promised to make phlebotomists extinct and put vital health information into the hands of average people. This boiled down to a small (and very secretive) box-like machine called the “Edison,” named after Holmes’ favorite inventor. Using a bunch of pseudo-scientific wishful thinking that turned out to be largely divorced from the laws of physics and the principles of basic common sense, the Edison was designed to conduct accurate blood tests with only a few small drops, allowing people to gauge their own health with a prick of the finger rather than having to go to a clinic and forfeit several large vials for each sample.
But really, what Theranos was selling — and what people were so eager to invest in — was Elizabeth Holmes herself. Much like Edison, Holmes was her own greatest invention. And, if you squint, it’s easy enough to appreciate why she was such a compelling figure. An unblinking 19-year-old blonde who looks like the lovechild of Laura Linney and Hannibal Lecter (and sounds like she’s imitating Mira Sorvino’s voice from “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion”), Holmes was a unicorn in the only place on Earth that still believes in them. Her flat affect and Steve Jobs fetishism might be run of the mill for Silicon Valley, but her vision was radically different; while Uber and Square and the rest of the startup sector was focused on improving people’s lives, Theranos would be devoted to saving them. It wasn’t a bad idea — in fact, it was a beautiful idea. However, it wasn’t a plausible idea, but Holmes kept shopping it around until she found a rich old man who didn’t realize that.
Of course, everyone wanted it to work. That’s true of the the potential investors who rejected Holmes’ proposal, and it’s true of the goon squad of retired statesmen (Henry Kissinger!), military legends (General Mattis!), and tongue-wagging venture capitalists (George Schultz!) who happily sat on the board of directors in order to spend time with her. It’s even true of the media, who were licking their chops at the chance to counter the narrative that Silicon Valley was a total sausage party (a Fortune Magazine cover story proved instrumental in launching the Theranos brand). Even before issues of representation grew urgent enough to shift the tectonic plates of our culture, people were still eager to rally around a woman and to champion her company as a sign of the future in more ways than one. Cut to: Theranos being valued at almost $10 billion, which is quite a lot of money for a company that only sold people on their own misguided optimism.
Then, like any house of cards, it all started to collapse. And while Gibney wrings a fair bit of tension and suspense (if precious little schadenfreude) from the complex process of how things spiraled out of control, most spectacular frauds unravel in a similar way. If you’ve seen either of the Fyre Festival documentaries, or paid even casual attention to American politics over the last two years, then you probably have a pretty good sense of how it goes. First there are the lies and the desperate attempts to cover them up. Those are followed by hostile legal action, rampant paranoia, and — at the top of the food chain — a demented insistence that everything is going to work out in the end. It’s stressful to watch it unfold, but it no longer feels particularly novel.
And yet, Theranos isn’t the same thing as the Fyre Festival, and Holmes isn’t just another Billy McFarland. They’re only separated by a few sociopathic degrees of self-belief, but Gibney finds all of his most fascinating material from within that small gap. The Edison didn’t work. It never worked. It physically couldn’t work (the film’s most amusing scene is a computer-generated illustration of the bloody mayhem inside one of those machines, which were less effective at testing blood than they were at stabbing a technician’s hand full of syphilis). But when Holmes told the world that the Edison was 100 percent ready for primetime, and that everyone should just take her word for it and definitely not investigate her super-private company, it seems that she was just stalling for time; she truly believed that with enough money, and a long-enough runway, Theranos would revolutionize life as we know it. It’s easy to lie to yourself for a good cause.
Holmes was possessed by the idea, a dark haunting that Gibney is only able to express because of the treasure trove of demented interview footage that Errol Morris was paid to shoot for a horrifying Theranos ad a few years back. In a film short on expressive imagery, Morris’ leftovers provide a much-needed jolt of personality, as the fill lights of his Interrotron make Holmes (along with all of the innocent civilians who are also featured in the ad) look like characters David Lynch cut out of “Inland Empire” for being too creepy. Gibney’s passive-aggressive drag of another major documentarian is what passes for drama in a movie that can’t salvage enough of it from an 11-figure fraud.
Gibney is eager to reiterate the facts of this all-too-believable story, and he does so with the logic and clarity of a well-honed journalist. But it’s not enough for “The Inventor” to diagnose how Theranos happened; it also needs to provide a postmortem on what it all meant, and it’s there that Gibney comes up empty. He’s skittish around gray areas, and blanches away from abstractions; he peers into the unstable abyss of human behavior and then quickly retreats to solid ground. An era that deifies its visionaries is always going to be defined by its hucksters, and in a world run by a con man, there’s little value in simply reiterating the self-evident truth that people want to believe in something bigger than themselves.
The story of Theranos begs for Gibney to look inward and explore the benefits (and pitfalls) of self-belief, especially as “The Inventor” pops to life in the rare moments when he entertains the idea that our world might be better for having people like Elizabeth Holmes in it. “The Inventor” identifies the fine line between “too good to be true” and “true enough to be good,” but it doesn’t have the vision to see how we might hope to cross it.
“The Inventor” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It will air on HBO later this year.