Oh my God, this was such a creepy documentary!
The Inventor tells the story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, who, at one point, Forbes named the wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America, and who is currently facing criminal charges of defrauding not only her investors but also a countless number of doctors and patients. After dropping out of college, Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos, a Silicon Valley-based company that claimed it had devised a method that would revolutionize how blood was tested and which would lead to people leading longer and healthier lives. (“No one will have to say an early goodbye,” as Elizabeth put it.) It all had to do with a blood-testing device called the Edison, a device that Holmes designed, patented, and made a fortune by licensing. That the Edison didn’t actually do what Holmes claimed that it did put lives at risk and ultimately led to her downfall.
So, what makes The Inventor such a creepy documentary? A lot of it has to do with the fact that Elizabeth Holmes herself comes across as being so creepy. With her endless supply of black turtlenecks and her rather monotonous (not to mention notably deep) voice, she comes across as being a cult leader in the making. When we see archival footage of her being interviewed or of her giving a speech to her worshipful employees, she has the type of demented gleam in her eye that one would normally associate with a particularly enthusiastic Bond villain. When her former employees talk about her, they not only mention her drive and her dedication but they also mention the fact that she rarely blinked. In fact, she so rarely blinked that other people also felt as if they shouldn’t blink in her presence. Theranos was a company full of people with thousand-yard stares.
Despite the fact that, as many people point out, Elizabeth Holmes had no experience in the medical field and that the majority of her lies were easily exposed, she still had little trouble getting wealthy and powerful men to invest in her company. Among those who invested in Theranos and sat on its board of directors: two former secretaries of state, one former and one future secretary of defense, and several prominent businessmen. Though the documentary doesn’t explore this angle as perhaps it should have, it’s interesting to note that the majority of Holmes’s backers and defenders were 1) elderly and 2) male. The one female investor that Holmes tried to bring in easily saw through Holmes’s lies. On the other hand, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz became enthusiastic backers of Holmes and her “vision.” Meanwhile, attorney David Boies — who was best-known for being Al Gore’s personal attorney and who later was hired to head up Harvey Weinstein’s defense team — is on hand to intimidate any Theranos employees who might be on the verge of turning into a whistleblower. Elizabeth Holmes may currently be an indicted pariah but, before that, she spent many years as a proud member of the American establishment.
In fact, several other members of the Establishment makes cameo appearances in The Inventor. At one point, we see Holmes being interviewed by Bill Clinton. At another point, Joe Biden stops by Theranos and praises the company. We see pictures of Elizabeth Holmes in the Oval Office, visiting with Barack Obama. Holmes is put on the covers of magazines. Numerous publications declare her to be the next Steve Jobs. She’s held up as the future of not just blood testing but also the future of business. It’s only after one reporter has the courage to actually investigate her claims and two employees risk their futures to tell the truth about what they saw at Theranos that Elizabeth Holmes is revealed to be a fabulist and a con artist. Was she ever sincere in her desire to make the world a better place or was that just another part of her carefully constructed persona? The Inventor is full of people still struggling to answer that question for themselves.
The Inventor was directed by Alex Gibney. Gibney previous directed the Going Clear, an expose of Scientology. Watching The Inventor, it’s hard not to make comparisons between Scientology and the cults of Silicon Valley. Watching Elizabeth Holmes give a speech to her employees is like watching that infamous video of Tom Cruise pay homage to L. Ron Hubbard. And just as Scientology takes advantage of those with a need to believe in something bigger than them, Elizabeth Holmes did the same thing. Everyone wanted the promises of Homes, Theranos, and the Edison machine to be true. They wanted it to be true so much that they became blind to the reality that was right in front of them.
The Inventor is a fascinating documentary about power, wealth, fraud, and the prison of belief. It can currently be seen on HBO.