“I don’t have many secrets.” So began The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, the new film from Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, which screened as the eighth entry in Pure Nonfiction’s 2019 Winter Season. The film follows controversial Silicon Valley wunderkind Elizabeth Holmes, and her intense drive to pioneer groundbreaking blood testing technology - all while her company, Theranos, unravels around her.
The film does an exceptional job of detailing Holmes’ vast web of deceit and lies, as well as unearthing why powerful politicians, behemoth billionaires, and the general public all fell for her elaborate ruse. As Professor Dan Ariely states early in the film, “If you look at her from the beginning, it would be a cautionary tale about all of us.” He continues, “the reality is that data doesn’t stick in our minds the way stories do.” Holmes, for her part, became a master storyteller, making the deception that much easier to stomach for everyone she came in contact with. “They were talking about her as if she were Beethoven,” remarks journalist Ken Auletta. Theranos employees Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz were swept up in her charisma also. “She was a really good idol to have,” says Cheung. Shultz explains of the company’s goals, “You wanted it to be true so badly.” Those goals were too good to be true, however, and by the end of the film, Holmes is eventually charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud - all stemming from the creation of ‘Edison,’ a box that would, in theory, test blood with a sample a fraction of the size of a normal blood draw. Journalist Roger Parloff sums up Holmes’ achilles’ heel best at the end of the film. “What’s coming out of her mouth does not conform to the world that you or I know.”
Director Alex Gibney and producer Erin Edeiken commented further on Holmes’ incredible ability to bend powerful people to her will in the Q&A after the film. “Elizabeth’s genius was that she was a storyteller,” Gibney explained. “Now, mind you, she was telling an extremely fictional story, but she was a storyteller.” Edeiken commented further, “She was a woman coming along at the right time and the right place, and Silicon Valley, I think, was very hungry for a female inventor, a female entrepreneur.” Gibney, in a way, found her story very fascinating. “Part of what’s interesting about this story to me is how very powerful, very well heeled people and companies, whenever presented with the opportunity to really do due diligence, did just the opposite, and just trusted, just let themselves be bowled over by Elizabeth.” Gibney was also careful to clarify that she wasn’t all rotten. “I think Elizabeth in her own way is unique and special, but I don’t think she’s the classic bad apple, I think she’s an exaggeration of trends we see elsewhere. I think she’s an exaggeration of a trend we see in silicon valley - this whole idea of fake it to you make it, overpromise and you’ll figure it out downstream. And indeed she’s an exaggeration of that going back to Thomas Edison.”
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley airs Monday, March 18 at 9 PM on HBO. More information on the film is available at https://www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-inventor-out-for-blood-in-silicon-valley