The Inventor is a near miss about an American fraud

by Willem Gerrish | 4/2/19 2:10am

HBO’s new documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” chronicles the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose company, Theranos, claimed to revolutionize the world of blood testing. Spurred by an intense desire for wealth and fame, Holmes devised a way to carry out complex blood tests — the sorts that usually require an uncomfortable venous draw — with only a drop of blood obtained through a finger prick. The problem she and her company encountered, though, was that they simply couldn’t get the process to work. Terrified of failure and obsessed with her own legend, Holmes lied and connived to keep Theranos afloat, deliberately misrepresenting the abilities of her company. “The Inventor” dutifully tracks these events with straightforward documentary reporting, but it fails to fully delve into the fascinating character of Elizabeth Holmes or her web of deceit, resulting in a film that lacks intrigue and coherence. 

Ten years ago, I might have loved “The Inventor.” Even now, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it — Holmes’ story is such an interesting saga of tech boom idealism and surreptitiousness that it was impossible for the documentary to lose my attention. However, the plethora of truly extraordinary documentaries released in recent years have raised the bar. I’m talking about films like “Free Solo,” “Icarus” and “Citizenfour” documentaries that stand out for distinctive qualities in filmmaking and reporting that have given the documentary the status of a major cultural art form. In each of these movies, the directors go beyond merely telling a true story. “Free Solo” contains phenomenal cinematography and captures what might be the single greatest athletic achievement of all time while taking a closer look at the personal life and character of Alex Honnold, the climber the documentary follows. “Icarus” breaks the seal open on a major doping scandal with international implications. “Citizenfour” documents the escape of Edward Snowden, replete with the tension and immediacy of following a fugitive in real time. These are high-stakes documentaries made with passion and verve. “The Inventor” is no such film. 

At the heart of “The Inventor” lies a person so megalomaniacal and remorseless that she could sustain a whole score of documentaries, books and feature films. But director Alex Gibney fails to get close enough to Elizabeth Holmes, leaving me with the impression that I was watching her walk around in a cage at the zoo rather than getting an intense investigative analysis. And while I don’t believe that investigation is necessary for the success of a documentary — simply pointing a camera and recording an event can often be enough to create a powerful moment — Holmes’ story is one that requires more than the facts. She is a figure of intense mystery, cloaking herself, her company and her voice in a finely-crafted patina of Silicon Valley genius. Elizabeth Holmes fancied herself the next Steve Jobs, and she would stop at nothing to achieve that level of fame and recognition. She’s a person I want to know more about. It’s not enough to share just the facts and lies, or talk about her black turtlenecks and her deep voice and her blue eyes and simply leave it all on the table. The documentary only shows the façade without giving a tour of the building within. 

Indeed, one of the central problems with “The Inventor” is that it is too concerned with the facts. Gibney tracks every detail of Theranos’ rise and fall, using interviews with former employees to reveal what the working environment was actually like behind all that tinted glass. It’s as if he is trying to prove to audiences that Theranos was a highly dysfunctional company, a fact that viewers are already inclined to believe from the start of the film. The reason for this is that “The Inventor,” unlike documentaries such as “Icarus,” is not the first raconteur of its own story. That position goes to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who first broke the news of Theranos’ deceit and fraud with a series of articles beginning in 2015. Since then, Carreyrou has written an entire book on Holmes and Theranos entitled “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup;” ABC’s 20/20 has covered the story; and countless other media publications have picked up and regurgitated the facts of Holmes’ lies. Thus, in order to become an important or impressive work of documentary filmmaking, “The Inventor” had to do more than just repeat what I can read anywhere on the Internet — something it failed to do. 

As I mentioned, I think “The Inventor” could have succeeded had it probed into Holmes as a distinct individual with qualities both impressive and terrifying. She is a highly intelligent young woman with extraordinary powers of persuasion and image-crafting who kept a failing company afloat for over a decade by lying through her teeth. That’s a story worth telling. I want to know more about the riveting woman with unblinking eyes and a deep baritone voice who convinced George Shultz and Henry Kissinger to serve on the board of Theranos, impressed Stanford chemist Channing Robertson enough to get him to quit his job as a chemical engineering professor to join her company and engaged in a romantic relationship with her COO, Rawesh “Sunny” Balwani, who is almost 20 years her elder. Her power over these men alone is enough to conjure up ideas of Shakespearean female dominance, and that’s just one chapter in her story. Fortunately, Holmes’ story now lies in the hands of Adam McKay, the brilliant and biting director behind “The Big Short” and “Vice.” McKay is slated to direct a dramatized version of Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” with Jennifer Lawrence cast as Holmes. I have a feeling that McKay, with his sharp wit and penchant for grandeur, will explore the territory that “The Inventor” failed to uncover in its bland treatment of this towering tale of modern fraud.