The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley March 25, 2019
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
lizabeth Holmes, at one time hailed America’s youngest self-made billionaire, was a persuasive raconteur and saleswoman. All the stories she told might have been too good to be true, but, because they were so good, we couldn’t help but want them to be true. At 19, with just a few semesters of classes under her belt, Holmes dropped out of Stanford and founded Theranos, a company based in Silicon Valley. What
Theranos claimed to have up its sleeves was extraordinarily appealing. Purportedly, Holmes and her associates were developing a technology, referred to as the Edison, that was able to run hundreds of medical tests using just a single drop of blood. There would no longer be a need for needles; patients would no longer have to suffer pricks of pain. In no time, customers could go to their local Walgreens and get tests done in a near-à-la-carte fashion.
This sounded great — like a long-in-the-making breakthrough in the biomedical industry. But Holmes, we would later find out, was much better at advertising and coming up with ideas than she was at developing game-changing technology. There's a reason why such a fantastical advance hadn't been made decades ago. The Edison could not do what Holmes claimed it would — it was both scientifically and physically impossible, to put it more plainly — and her other assurances were totally bogus. When experts told her that what she aspired to provide to the public was scientifically unachievable early on, the ever-determined Holmes treated disappointing fact as if it were the equivalent of a high-school bully calling her names.
In spite of Theranos’ flimsiness, Holmes got away with her deceptions for more than a decade. Mesmerized by her underdog story, supporters — really, the public at large — were convinced that she was a once-in-a-lifetime wunderkind. Holmes appeared so confident in interviews and while giving speeches that most didn’t immediately second guess what she was saying. Members of the medical community voiced skepticism throughout Theranos’ ascent, but these opposing and far-quieter exclamations didn’t complement what people wanted to believe about Holmes. Her story, charisma, and company mission statement were too alluring, in no doubt helped by the fact that she was among the few female CEOs operating in Silicon Valley. It didn’t help that prestige publications like Fortune and The New Yorker bolstered her name, never chasing after clear red flags. It didn’t help, either, that Theranos had many big-name investors, like Henry Kissinger and Betsy DeVos. (Which, now, is even more darkly funny than it was at the height of Theranos’ duplicity.)
Chinks in Theranos’ armor began showing around 2015. That October, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou wrote an explosive investigative piece that largely unmasked Theranos' deceit. From there, things unraveled. A businesswoman who had once been the starlet of Silicon Valley and who had once headed a company that had been worth $4.5 billion would soon be a nothing, and unmasked as a talented serial liar and criminal. Theranos ceased operations in August, 2018; in the summer of that year, Holmes and company president (and lover) Sunny Balwani were first charged with massive fraud by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, then indicted, as announced by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, on conspiracy and wire-fraud charges.
In May, 2018, a popular book by Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, was published, and kickstarted an uptick in public interest surrounding the Holmes affair. A podcast miniseries detailing the ordeal, The Dropout, debuted this January. In March, a corresponding documentary premiered on ABC. In the works is a dramatization directed by Adam McKay (2015’s The Big Short and 2018’s Vice) and starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. At the moment, though, the most-discussed piece of Holmes lore is the documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which premiered at Sundance in January but was made available nationwide by HBO a few days ago.
Only familiar with The Dropout, which I devoured after a recommendation from a family member, I found that I took to The Inventor for the same reasons I was so riveted by the Holmes-centric podcast. We are, of course, drawn in by the spectacle that was Holmes’ improbable rise — and the desperate measures she took to maintain her company’s prosperity — and how difficult it was for the whistle to be blown, despite Theranos’ scientific dubiousness. The Inventor’s director, Alex Gibney, who is also responsible for other high-risk documentaries, does a good job of unpacking the story via persuasive talking-head interviews and inventive visuals. But most magnetic about all of it — and what I suspect is the reason why people are so ravenous to uncover new details about this long-con — is Holmes herself, whom we will probably never quite understand.
Throughout it all, she remains an arguably inscrutable, befuddling figure. The falseness is hinted at outwardly: gaze at her dry-as-the-Gobi fake-blonde hair; hastily applied makeup; penchant for black turtlenecks, an homage to her idol, Apple founder Steve Jobs; near-vampiric inability to normally blink; self-conscious gait. The utmost talking point so far has been her voice, ringing with a voicebox-to-the-ground baritone, which is speculated to be an affectation.
Holmes’ exact motivations remain pretty elusive. I ascribe to the belief that she, like many startup founders, thought it would be possible to build a successful business based on promises and attractive ideas, hoping things would actually work out on an abstract “someday.” But then, eventually, the idealistic Holmes decided that she would rather protract her deception than fess up — a tour-de-force in self-delusion, narcissism, and amorality.
Yet the trivia of her thought processes are still intriguingly evasive. In a recent albeit controversial review of The Inventor, the writer Rachel Syme notes that, even though the movie seeks to explore the Theranos saga for all it’s worth, it still cannot get inside Holmes’ head in the way we might like it to. Says Syme: “The real Holmes remains vexingly sphinxlike, no better understood today than when she was in the depths of her deception.” We can salivate all we want over the juicy story Holmes' misdeeds bore, but there is a sort of enigma at the center of it all that keeps us coming back for more. By its end, The Inventor feels like an appetizer preceding a meal we perhaps might never get to eat. B