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HBO’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is about the doomed biotech company Theranos and its founder, CEO Elizabeth Holmes. The movie itself is gripping, gory (shockingly so), and well, at least for me, suspicious (but more on that later).
To write this review, I first watched the doc alone and then asked a friend of mine to watch it with me as I had a nagging problem with the movie regarding some of its logic. For those of you who do not know the incredible story of Theranos’ rise and fall, I will give you a brief recap. When Elizabeth Holmes was just nineteen and a student at Stanford, she founded Theranos. She initially funded it by dropping out of college and using the money her parents had set aside for school. Additionally, she won the heart of a very powerful scientist mentor at Stanford who not only supported her but also quit his tenured professorship at Stanford to work for her. The premise of her company was to replace traditional blood tests requiring large vials extracted with a needle intravenously to using just a few drops of blood from a finger prick for the same tests. This amazing feat would be achieved using an ice chest-sized machine that could test the drop for hundreds of things from Syphilis to HDL and LDL cholesterol. The goal was for individuals to test their blood cheaply, quickly, easily, and monthly to catch diseases much more quickly. She touted it as a revolution in health care. Elizabeth Holmes built her biotech firm (which eventually would be valued at 10 billion dollars—and she would be able to raise 900 million dollars in investor money) using three things: older powerful men, a compelling yet simple story (that she repeated over and over and over), and a cult-leader-like persona.
The story of Theranos is genuinely compelling enough, and on those grounds alone, I heartily recommend seeing this movie. It really is an incredible story with many angles to contemplate. A glaring aspect is that she charmed a lot of extremely powerful men that gave her company an air of importance and respectability, and being surrounded by these men gave Elizabeth Holmes herself an air of genius and visionary because the older men seemed to worship her. Worship—that was a quality Ms. Holmes was a genius of creating, and even her employees who eventually would oversee and report incredible fraud, negligence, and her nearly cruel paranoia admitted to feeling that feeling of worship at some point about Elizabeth Holmes. Truly, besides the incredible story, the movie’s study of Ms. Holmes herself is haunting and fascinating.
Now, for the part of the movie that I found suspicious. It’s important to note that Ms. Holmes is currently out on $500,000 bail and is awaiting her case (it is currently still in discovery—which might take a few years). (Yahoo Finance) She has been charged with criminal fraud. And to be clear, it was not simply white-collar fraud. While she did get hundreds of millions of dollars from investors by lying to them regarding her blood testing machine (which never worked), she also set up testing centers in Walgreens throughout the state of Arizona and risked the lives of thousands of people by giving them completely erroneous lab tests. Yes, while her machine in no way worked, nor did it ever work, she conned Walgreens into going forward with using her new ‘revolutionary technology.’ So, it’s important to remember what she did rose to the level of risking the health and safety of people. After the legal discovery period is complete, we will learn the full extent to which Theranos put lives in danger and possibly resulted in deaths. So, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is not simply about white collar greed but also the kinds of danger her company put normal people's lives in.
What caused me to be suspicious of this movie is that it is packed with Theranos’ footage of Ms. Holmes which must have been willingly handed over to the filmmakers by Ms. Holmes herself. The most disturbing part of the movie is not all of the blood and needles (though it is pretty gory), but it is the way the movie argues that Ms. Holmes is not a con artist but, rather, a zealot. According to the movie, she really believed her own bull. The argument presented in the movie was that she was so blinded by her mission to save the world and revolutionize healthcare that she simply could not see reality. That is the justification that is trotted out and repeated in the movie. Even the journalists that were heavily embarrassed by being part of Theranos’ rise to power still refused to believe that she was truly evil—instead they both offered their delusion theories, and to be sure it was not lost on me that they too were older gentlemen. They even had a behavioral economist interject throughout the movie his take, and he too suggests that she was not lying or was able to lie so much and so compellingly because she was a true believer that her machines would work eventually. Essentially, she was simply ‘faking it until she made it’ which was explained in the movie repeatedly as a laudable aspect of inventing new technologies. However, it was only mentioned very briefly in passing that this very same behavioral economist had been hired by Ms. Holmes to help when her company was in free fall.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is an incredibly gripping and thought-provoking documentary. It does present the extent of Theranos’ fraud and incompetency unflinchingly. However, it also builds the same argument that her lawyers are already beginning to present through the press in that she was innocent through her blinding passion to save the world (which I find incredibly suspicious). I definitely recommend seeing this movie. I saw it twice and was captured each time—even though I kind of felt like I was watching a Ms. Holmes propaganda film.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.