In The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, the David Attenborough of corporate corruption trains his eye on Elizabeth Holmes and her billions-to-bupkiss tech company, Theranos. Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney tracks Holmes’ meteoric rise and subsequent crash-and-burn with a particular eye on questions about bullshit. The Theranos story is full of bullshit, that’s certain. Some feel the company and its young founder were wanton, venal, power-mad perpetrators of this bullshit; a few seem happy to imagine it was less deliberate, that Holmes got carried away, or even that she’s one of those bright folks whose reality mostly lies outside the Venn diagram of consensus-reality. The Inventor doesn’t make a hard argument one way or the other, but it’s clear that one of the only people who really believes Holmes didn’t do wrong is Holmes herself.
Like most any Alex Gibney film, this one is sleek, well-produced, focused and journalistic. But The Inventor, given the Gibney-perfect subject, is a little surprising in its softness. Anyone who’s watched his takedowns of Enron or Volkswagen or Scientology will probably be primed for him to draw more blood than his subject’s next-gen phlebotomy tech. Those people might feel the need to write to the director urging him to reconsider his apparent switch to decaf. As competent as it is, the film just doesn’t bite very hard.
Holmes, for her part, comes across as an oddball. A Stanford dropout, she dresses like Steve Jobs and talks like Mira Sorvino announcing “I invented Post-Its” in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. In her manner, she oscillates between awkward stiffness and a strangely preening, camera-loving smugness. She doesn’t blink much—an affective tic Gibney emphasizes with tons of close shots of her large, slightly protruding eyes. Holmes’ beloved uncle died of cancer when she was young, and that kindled in her a desire to improve access to affordable, accurate and less invasive medical blood testing. At 19, she founded Theranos, a tech startup designed to disrupt the medical testing world. Holmes quickly became something of an icon, a woman founder and CEO with a Fortune cover (Holmes herself points out, in a rather neener-neener tone of voice, that none of the other female CEOs were founders). Theranos gleaned high-visibility investors and board members (Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, and Betsy DeVos are name-dropped), staged self-praise-fest all-company meetings where the 700 employees chorused “fuck you” at a detractor or danced to MC Hammer to celebrate FDA approval of a herpes test, garnered $9 billion in VC funnymoney and ostentatiously declined to go public. All this on the searing success of “Edison,” a desktop sized blood-assay machine named after the inventor who famously advised perseverance through 10,000 failures in faith that the 10,001st try would be a smashing success.
Meanwhile, the CEO who telegraphed “transparency” by creating an office space full of glass walls was secretly dating her COO, Sunny Bahwani. She continued her campaign of snake-charming the wealthy and powerful and none of them noticed she had no marketable product yet. “Edison” was shown to prospective investors (and every Walgreens in Arizona) and touted for being able to perform 200 tests on a couple drops of blood, but while the deep-pockets set were being shown the Keurig in the breakroom, lab technicians were hustling to do the tests manually on Siemens equipment behind a door that was not made of glass at all. Employees began to itch over the amount of stuff they didn’t know and the even larger amount of stuff they had to sign NDAs about. The Theranos blood tests were dangerously unreliable. Things became shaky. Whistles were blown. Whistleblowers were threatened. One employee committed suicide. Others prowled the streets of Palo Alto in fear they were being followed by shadowy teams of legal fixers (in some cases, the paranoia had a reasonable basis in reality).
The $9 billion company tanked. Fast and hard.
This is a classic story of corporate fraud, in most ways. The only significant departure is that we are used to this kind of hijinks from corporate CEOs who are men, and it seems sort of shocking and weird when a woman gets away with it. That might have been an interesting¬—or the interesting—angle for the film. It’s kind of implied. It’s never particularly extrapolated.
Elizabeth Holmes was another corporate charlatan in Silicon Valley. She fleeced investors, lied to the public, and threatened her employees to keep them in line. We have tons of those stories about American business executives, but most of them are about men, not youthful, pouty-lipped blondes. Normally, I am not obsessed with demography, but it came up for me in the context of The Inventor, and it’s telling that it did precisely because I am relatively unlikely to don demography-goggles when I screen documentaries. Why was Alex Gibney so reluctant to call this story what it was: Fraud? There’s a perplexing amount of time given to wondering whether Holmes could possibly have been so wantonly deceitful, as in, maybe she has mental health issues. Maybe she’s delusional. Maybe she really believed she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Maybe in her mind, Theranos was a viable company with a game-changing product and the stars were just a tad misaligned. Maybe in her kooky little loco-world everything was OK.
Raise your hand if you just got a skin-crawling déjà vu thing about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford: Maybe in her mind it wasn’t a lie, but out there in Male Empirical Reality World something else was going down and the little lady just didn’t understand how it really was?
Come on, Gibney. Raising the specter of mental illness to make it sound like you’re not patronizing, infantilizing and demeaning the shit out of someone is what gaslighters do. Why exactly do we need to create space for Elizabeth Holmes to be not in control of her faculties? Why can she not be a plain old garden-variety lying snake-charmer who got very rich and powerful being a freaking bullshit artist? Of course, anyone can have mental or emotional irregularities, and maybe Holmes did, or does. But if that’s the story, do what you need to do to make it the story. No evidence is presented to that effect in the documentary. All we really get is another head-scratching refusal to imagine that a woman made the clear-eyed, premeditated decision to succeed at any cost, and that it just plain bit her in the butt.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.