Friday, March 22, 2019
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) * * *
Directed by: Alex Gibney
Featuring: Elizabeth Holmes (archive footage)
If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. This is a well-worn phrase which is still relevant because people continue to fall for the next great idea which will enrich humanity and make them stupid money at the same time. Elizabeth Holmes had such an idea at age 19 and by the time she was in her early 20's, she founded a tech company in Silicon Valley with powerful men such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz as investors. How did a Stanford dropout in her 20's convince wealthy power brokers to fork over millions to fund her company and her ultimately fraudulent dream? You would think such players would be leery of a young woman (or man) pitching them ideas of a small black box which would be able to perform hundreds of blood tests with just a tiny sample of blood. This was Elizabeth's idea and she called it The Edison. The Inventor illustrates why this is such a fitting name for her doomed product.
Thomas Edison was, of course, among the most famous inventors in all history. He patented many inventions which would change the world, but he was just as notorious for stalling investors who were impatient to see what they invested in. In the case of the incandescent light bulb, Edison was near the end of his financial rope with investors threatening to sue him for fraud when he finally got it right. Elizabeth Holmes treated her vision the same way. Her art was fake it until you make it.
The Edison sounded like a noble, efficient product which could change the blood industry. Until her company Theranos was founded, Lab Corp and Quest Diagnostics ruled the blood testing landscape.
They did it the old fashioned way, by sticking a needle in your arm and drawing vials of blood.
The Edison promised to perform the same tests with just a pinprick of blood. Never mind that Elizabeth had no medical background and doctors she consulted early on told her such an invention couldn't possibly work, she steamrolled ahead gathering investors, nearly 800 employees, and a flashy new office in Silicon Valley. By 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion even though the company did not produce a single working Edison.
Pyramid schemes work because people want to get rich quick. They fall for the package and trust the con artist far too quickly. I have no doubt that Elizabeth had a dynamic vision for the future, but when it became apparent her machine would not work, she committed fraud by using standard lab testing equipment to test the blood samples The Edison was supposed to test. A lucrative deal fell through with Walgreens when they ran out of patience as Theranos couldn't deliver on its promises while customers complained that it took weeks to get results which turned out to be dubious at best.
Through it all, Elizabeth remained stout, determined, and unflappable even in the face of damaging Wall Street Journal articles and government crackdowns on Theranos. The more scrutiny she faced, the more she buried herself in lies. Theranos is now defunct, and she and her business partner/lover
Sunny Bulwani are now facing up to 20 years in prison on numerous fraud and financial charges. Her net worth is now zero, which is the least of her problems.
Alex Gibney's most famous documentaries involve masters of deception who sold people on their visions and then intimidated those who blew the whistle on them. His subjects include Enron, Lance Armstrong, The Catholic Church, and now Elizabeth Holmes. Each succeeded temporarily in selling a dream and a story to those they ultimately victimized. They had money, power, and enablers who helped them cover up their crimes, or those who naively bought into the deception in the first place. Elizabeth herself is a beautiful enigma. She has intense eyes, dresses in all black outfits eerily similar to those Steve Jobs wore, and speaks in a confident baritone. Her voice lent her credibility she hadn't earned at the age of 20. If Elizabeth had spoken in a higher pitched, more feminine voice, maybe her investors wouldn't have taken her as seriously. She would've sounded like an airhead with a farfetched dream. But she sounded and looked the part of a serious inventor, and people bought in. This persona allowed her to keep her investors' and board's confidence much longer than she should have had it. Elizabeth was overpowering, empowering, intelligent, focused, confident, and very easy on the eyes. Who exactly was at home behind her sometimes seemingly unblinking eyes? No one really cared to find out. She sold a bill of goods, and many bought it.
Numerous former employees and colleagues are interviewed, as well a New Yorker reporter whose cover story helped launch Elizabeth's celebrity. She rubbed elbows with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Serena Williams, and many other famous people who were in awe of her, instead of the other way around. Gibney doesn't let it go unnoticed that without the financial backing of such power players, Theranos would have not existed. They fell for the package of Elizabeth Holmes while failing to notice her sleight of hand. They saw what they wanted to see, and never peeked inside the box.
Gibney's best documentary remains Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), because The Catholic Church's culpability was evident as they covered up abuse by priests for the sake of keeping money flowing to their coffers. The most powerful moment in the film is a group of deaf adult males using every ounce of their limited communication skill and repressed anger they have to confront the priest who abused them decades before. The Inventor never reaches that level of intensity and drama. Those who were victims of Elizabeth's fraud and intimidation by her legal team (a la Lance Armstrong when others tried to speak out on his steroid use) do not get the chance to directly face their perpetrator. She will have her day in court, and her comeuppance will come at the hands of the legal system, but she remains not much different than the leaders of Enron or Lance Armstrong. They, like Elizabeth Holmes, sold a vision and a version of themselves to the public and found they were willing to break the law to protect that vision and the face they wanted everyone to see.