The Pitch: It was a marvelous pitch. A black box, capable of running upward of 240 blood tests – diabetes, HIV, cholesterol, cocaine – a la carte, from just a single drop of blood. Think about the level of industry disruption. Labs, doctors, Big Pharma, all brought to their knees and consolidated into a Macintosh-like box in the back of your Walgreens. Patient-consumer data at the prick of a fingertip, with far less blood and funding needed to make things happen. We’d beat a gatekeeping, profiteering healthcare system overnight. This could save untold millions of lives with early detection. And who wouldn’t want to see that in their lifetime? Developments in nanotechnology, modern medical innovation, and Silicon Valley gumption seem like perfect excuses for an idea like this to be within reach.
Too bad the damn thing didn’t work.
But that was Elizabeth Holmes’ dream. Her vision. Her colossally hubristic and wildly entertaining boondoggle of an idea. That vision is the subject of documentarian Alex Gibney’s latest adventure in shady dealings, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Hot on the heels of John Carreyou’s already-optioned book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, the popular ABC News podcast The Drop Out, and a decade of reporting on the reckless upstart, Gibney joins the fray in his documentary account of how Elizabeth Holmes’ good idea went very bad.
Why B-Negative?: For those in the know, the Theranos story is hitting a point of oversaturation in its popular reminiscence. Podcasts. TV specials. A best-selling book. The HBO documentary from an Oscar-winning director that you’re currently reading about. (At the time of this writing, Jennifer Lawrence has been cast in a feature film take.) But that doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the most dangerous stories to come out of California in some time. In a town known for its excess, ego, and secrecy, Theranos really is something to hear about.
The Apple Newton? Flaming Samsung phones? Think bigger, with an ostensible gadget fail featuring some of the scariest implications imaginable, offset by abuses of clout and cash. When it comes to innovation, people love flops like the DeLorean and New Coke about as much as they love icons like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. But the difference between the former and the latter? Thomas and Steve were a lot better at hiding their failures.
Holmes was a Stanford dropout. Dr. Phillis Gardner, MD, a professor, suggests early on that Holmes’ ambitions far outweighed any concept of reality. According to Gardner, Holmes pitched the concept of “microfluidics” and nanotech to detect flaws in blood while delivering medicine. Cool. We think. But also impossible, according to Gardner. Holmes simply thanked Gardner for the feedback and carried on. By many accounts – doctors, publicists, technicians – Holmes was both blessed and cursed by her ambition.
Despite accumulating medical and scientific rebukes alike, Holmes assembled a war chest of wealthy, big-name supporters. You see her speak with Joe Biden and Bill Clinton about her genius. She’s praised by celebrities like Amy Schumer and Jared Leto at big events. The Waltons. Betsy DeVos. Henry Kissinger. All on the board of the company. Fortune and The New York Times featured her extensively. Even Walgreens bought into the machine, before it was tested or FDA-approved. They all wanted a share of what could have been the Next Big Thing.
Gibney presents a woman who fell victim to A-list hype, even as it’s argued she could have benefited from better mentoring. Holmes needed to calibrate her dreams against reality, but the damage was already done; too many people had already bought into the dream. And that’s when her company Theranos started refusing to acknowledge reality. Machines with constant errors. False blood tests for easy-to-swindle investors. A strained workforce that just couldn’t defeat the laws of physics to make her concept work in a small-box format.
In the Gibney Business: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Taxi to the Dark Side. The Armstrong Lie. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Alex Gibney knows what failing systems look like, and the ways in which even intelligent people are duped by enticing cults, be they religious, athletic, or capitalist. Gibney’s knack for de-complicating elaborate ruses and bad behavior lines up perfectly with Holmes’ fall. As a director, he has a clean way of answering a great, perpetual question: How the hell did this happen?
He’s stylistically unfussy, and focused on narrativizing Theranos through Holmes. He assembles post-mortem interviews with engineers, educators, and reporters – all contrite in their involvement – to tell the tale. Whistle-blower Tyler Schultz and lab associate Erika Cheun share their embarrassments. And Gibney intercuts testimonials with gallows marketing footage of Elizabeth eerily walking around, or scary-as-hell CG renderings of what a failing Edison looked like (hint: bloody, and smoky, and filled with broken glass). Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely provides insight into Holmes’ vision of herself, and he considers the fact that she never experienced true failure for far too long. And even more tellingly, initial investor Tim Draper (still wild-eyed in a Bitcoin tie) refuses to acknowledge Theranos as a direct failure, as he brags of his own accomplishments in investing in other big ideas.
Gibney smartly curates footage and voices wisely to get his point across. The aforementioned speakers add levels of insight, from brazen to nuanced, that a radio show or news segment can’t quite approximate. And the stock footage of a mechanical, almost avoidant-looking Holmes speaks volumes. She really believed in her own bunk, and that’s the power of this doc. Perhaps The Inventor will feel like just another chapter in the growing infamy of Theranos, but at least it’s as potent as any of them.
The Verdict: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley offers tidy, compelling, and continued proof of Gibney’s skills in the art of delineation. He can take a convoluted business fuck-up like Theranos, chart it in its entirety, and break the essential elements into an understandable two-hour presentation. Gibney layers on Odyssean arrogance, big-tech paranoia, and a compelling and complicated focal point in the form of one Elizabeth Holmes. A person whose Big Idea was sadly too big and too good to be true.
Where’s It Playing?: The doc premiered at Sundance this past January, and premieres on HBO on March 18th.