If you want to know the “what” and the “how” of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’ $10 billion startup scam, HBO’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley has answers for you. But the “why” is frustratingly inconclusive. Which is a problem, because that’s the most interesting part.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Theranos story, which has also been covered in the bestselling nonfiction book Bad Blood and will soon be a movie with Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes, here’s the broad strokes of it: an ambitious young woman founded a company that promised to disrupt the blood-testing industry with revolutionary technology, and along the way she made some extremely powerful friends, raised hundreds of millions of dollars and had a net worth valued at over $4 billion, and became a celebrity thanks to a press wrapped around her finger. But the technology didn’t work, and in reality Holmes was running one of the biggest cons in American history. It’s a fraud that implicates basically everyone, from the investors who bought her sales pitch to the media that puffed her up and the regulators who didn’t see this coming.
Scams — and the documentaries and reportage about them — are the defining cultural product of America in the Trump age. We haven’t been so aware of the role that fraud and corruption play in our institutions, from entertainment to academia to governments, since the at least Watergate (ironically, one of America’s most prodigious liars, President Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fell for Holmes’ scam). And The Inventor director Alex Gibney is one of America’s foremost chroniclers of corruption, from Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room to The Armstrong Lie to Going Clear, among many others. But with Elizabeth Holmes, his straightforward journalistic tone has met its match.
Gibney is meticulous with the facts and the documentation of what Holmes did, and The Inventor is entertaining as a corruption-exposing thriller, but Gibney doesn’t dig deep enough into Holmes as a person, which is the crucial part of understanding this scam. Gibney’s just-the-facts style doesn’t allow for much speculation about why Holmes did what she did or how she, specifically, was able to convince people who should know better to fork over their money. Watching her dance awkwardly to “U Can’t Touch This” and talk in her artificially low voice, you don’t get a sense of this person as a charisma powerhouse. A long con needs its con artist to work, and Holmes remains elusive. You won’t come away from this feeling like you understand her better. There’s a half-hearted attempt to paint her as a true believer, but it’s unconvincing.
The Inventor may have been better served with a more opinionated take on the story, like the documentaries about the other great scam of our time, the Fyre Festival. Fyre Fraud and Fyre take us deep into the mind of con man Billy McFarland, and we come away understanding him as a pathological liar who desperately wanted to be cool. Fyre Fraud in particular gets deep into thinking about “What It All Means” that millennials are so susceptible to social media manipulation. (Fyre Fraud also has an in-depth interview with McFarland, which Gibney was not granted with Holmes.) And if any story needs a “What It All Means” theory, it’s Theranos. We need someone to explain how to stop falling for scams. Unfortunately, The Inventor doesn’t even really try.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley premieres Monday, March 18 at 9/8c on HBO.