Few things are as emotionally destructive as lies. That much is apparent throughout Alex Gibney’s documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about one-time tech startup rock star Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes founded Theranos, a company claiming to revolutionize blood testing with tiny sample requirements and a portable testing machine. Her company raised millions of dollars in funding and had high-level men like Henry Kissinger and James Mattis on its board. But the whole thing was built on lies. The machine had impossible design requirements, and never achieved a workable prototype. Behind the scenes, Holmes’ company operated under a cloud of paranoia, bizarre relationships and a rotating door of scientific advisers.
From the front end, however, Holmes appeared to be a compelling, inspiring leader, full of confidence in her product and her mission. She appeared on the cover of Fortune and made allies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She was hailed as a leader in the mold of her idol, Steve Jobs. In telling the wild story of Holmes’ company, Gibney’s documentary considers the underlying forces of Silicon Valley innovation culture and inventor’s ambition that led Holmes to lie so effectively, and why so many people who should have known better fell for it.
It’s easy, in documentaries about giant swindles, to paint a subject as an outright villain—Gibney should know. In his previous documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and particularly his film on Scientology, Going Clear, there are characters that arise as bullies and straight-up bad guys. However, he makes the interesting choice here of presenting Holmes not as horrible, but as something of a mystery. Everyone Gibney speaks to, whether they’re journalists or former employees, makes the point that Holmes never believed she was conning anyone. In her mind, she was a visionary whose attempt at innovation simply didn’t work. The difference here is that instead of building a data cloud or email client, she was creating technology that had significant impact on people’s lives.
Which is why the effect of Holmes’ lies on those she came in contact with remains one of The Inventor’s most intriguing elements. Seasoned journalist Roger Parloff, who reported on Holmes for Fortune early during her rise, still seems emotionally distraught by the experience of learning the woman he championed had taken him for a ride. Holmes’ former Stanford adviser is livid that Holmes continued to pursue an idea she was repeatedly told was not physically possible, and got others to buy into it. The former employees Gibney speaks to mention being thrilled and inspired by Holmes initially, then later put their careers and sanity on the line to bring her down. All of them appear to have been irrevocably damaged by the experience—disappointed, anxious, a little cynical, and angry that the person who harmed them still doesn’t seem to think she did anything wrong.
What is a bit disappointing about Gibney’s documentary is that it goes light on insights into the psychology behind Holmes’ elaborate ruse, or digging deeper into the surrounding Silicon Valley culture that nurtured it. Gibney devotes most of the running time to recounting the details of the story. While there are plenty of juicy bits throughout The Inventor, it might have been even more rewarding to spend more time with interviewees like behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who appears a couple of times to talk briefly about the sociological aspects of Theranos’ rise and fall. A thread about Thomas Edison, and the mindset of great inventors, has a lot of potential, but is used for only a moment at the beginning of the film, and is barely ever revisited.
Despite this shortcoming, however, The Inventor remains a compelling case study in the innovator mindset gone horribly wrong. It feels appropriate that HBO has taken on Gibney’s film, given that it feels very much like an abandoned season arc for Silicon Valley. There’s a lot of that same desperate pushing ahead here, trying to display an air of confidence while rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The difference here is that the stakes are much higher, and the repercussions significantly darker. Holmes hurt a lot of people with the lies she told, sure. But ultimately, Gibney’s film posits, the personality behind them wasn’t far removed from the ones that created Uber, Apple or Google. Holmes’ gambit put lives at stake, however, and when it failed, even the powerful people surrounding her weren’t enough to keep her from being found out.