When Silicon Valley med-tech startup Theranos promised it could conduct hundreds of consumer-ordered tests from a drop or two of finger-drawn capillary blood, often within a small, self-contained box device, big-name investors lined up and the all-too-powerful encircled CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes was young—a Stanford dropout with a great big idea. Billions were generated for a company cloaked in secrecy that promised far more than it could ever deliver. But as the misinformation grew and the apparent fraud mounted, Theranos doubled down on false data, ultimately bringing about its own demise amid a mountain of dangerous allegations and seeming insanity on the part of Holmes and her one-time COO, Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani.
Documentarian Alex Gibney brings us all the gory details in The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, the newest HBO documentary. It's a gripping tale that starts with hope, winds through schadenfreude and ultimately ends up as a cautionary tale about the dangerous intersection of the American healthcare system, money and influence. We hate that it's like this, but we strangely enjoy the ride.
The Inventor predictably features numerous doctors, former employees and experts in candid interviews, but it's the journalists throughout, from those who were duped by Holmes' seemingly revolutionary ideas to those who recognized the grift and exposed it wholesale, who really bring the heat. With a nigh-unprecedented amount of footage from within the company—not to mention tech conferences, television appearances, photo shoots, etc.—Gibney deftly grasps and guides our emotions, of which there are many. We want to like Holmes, then we do like her, but we are eventually disgusted by her ego; or, as New Yorker contributor Ken Auletta, who wrote of Theranos, describes, her zeal. But mostly, we're disappointed that this story is not uncommon in an America that lionizes the likes of Elizabeth Holmes and Steve Jobs while ignoring the facts in deference to charismatic businesspeople.
Gibney does make bizarre choices now and then, from archival footage that just barely applies to offscreen narration or Holmes' speeches to the glossing-over of a Theranos employee's suicide committed in the face of rising scrutiny from regulators. Even so, The Inventor shines a light on the pressures of entrepreneurship and consumer fervor, the toxic and far-too-secretive culture of Silicon Valley and the illusion of success when a distorted idea of legacy becomes the powerful's primary guiding light.
+The journos; the company footage
-The stock footage; pacing issues
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Directed by Gibney
HBO, NR, 119 min.