She doesn’t blink. Among the many things that make Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes completely incongruous with reality, it’s the fact that she doesn’t seem to ever blink that really stands out. All of those bits and pieces that compose Holmes’ otherworldly nature are—the whole of her impossible presence that allowed her to build a $10 billion scam—are the focus of Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, and it sticks with you.
That, perhaps, is the greatest achievement of the film. Hearing about Theranos or even reading about its grand fall from grace, it can be difficult to see how anyone could be a big enough rube to believe any of the tremendous and numerous lies that tumbled out of Holmes’ mouth. Even going back and reading some of the old coverage of the company, it’s hard to comprehend just how anyone would accept her statements without thorough and bullheaded vetting.
But the way Gibney frames the narrative of the company and Holme’s unstoppable rise slowly but surely puts you on the other side of the line. It’s an obvious strength of his (just look to his past works Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Going Clear) and it’s on full display here. Her hypnotic winter eyes; her low, growling voice, seemingly straining against her own thoughts; her vacant yet full expression. Ethereal barely begins to describe her first impression.
That tends to work on its own merits, though, which leaves the structural components of the company’s story in Gibney’s hands. He touches lightly on the milieu; a 19-year-old woman in a male-dominated industry is quite the alluring story for journalists and investors. But he also reaches into the story of those that helped her and Theranos along the way.
You can’t overstate, for instance, just how important it was that Holmes was a family friend of George P. Shultz, former US Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of Labor. You tend to not get a lot of questions when someone like Shultz is in your corner. (His grandson, however, ended up being one of the whistle-blowers that led to Theranos’ downfall.)
Much like the Fyre Festival documentaries, it also broadly throws blame on all the employees that didn’t put their foot down on the obvious fraud occurring within the company. The ones that happily clapped along as Theranos president Sunny Balwani announced new milestones or danced onto stage when new investments were hoisted up. It’s so broad, however, that it doesn’t really land. For a film that plays so deeply into personal accountability, this mass responsibility sentiment doesn’t quite click.
And like the lesser of the Fyre Festival documentaries, it also lets some of the interviewees go for indeterminate reasons. Well, it’s clear they have a reason, which is to say to absolve themselves of blame. They didn’t know it was happening or it wasn’t in my purview or any number of other general excuses. And that sort of bolsters the idea that a cult of personality had formed behind Holmes, but it doesn’t work especially well. Instead, you are left thinking about how hard they are trying to save their own reputation.
With this misdirected attention, the film tends to waver as it goes on. We lose the thread on where exactly the onus lies with Theranos’ criminal lifecycle. Gibney assumes that the story of the company is so clear and straightforward when laid bare that he wants to let it speak for itself, but it can’t. There ends up being not not enough questions asked and answers given to some questions that never even mattered.
As a character study, however, it works. Hearing and seeing Holmes compare herself to Yoda and Thomas Edison and, most hilariously, ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes is mind-blowingly absurd and paints so clearly how detached she is from the world the rest of us live in. This is a film that won’t leave you sated, but it will leave you intrigued. Just don’t open up your checkbook.
Final Score: 7 out of 10