Film Review: The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley (dir by Alex Gibney)

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.



The Precursors Continue! Here are the WGA Nominations!


Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to get back to Oscar season!

The guilds have started to announce their nominees for the best of 2016 and since the guilds, unlike the various critic groups, include people who actually vote for the Oscars, they are usually pretty useful as far as predictive tool.

So, with that in mind, here are the nominations of the Writers Guild of America!

(The big surprise?  Deadpool — which has actually gotten a lot of unexpected attention during Oscar season — landed a nomination.)


Hell or High Water, Written by Taylor Sheridan; CBS Films

La La Land, Written by Damien Chazelle; Lionsgate

Loving, Written by Jeff Nichols; Focus Features

Manchester by the Sea, Written by Kenneth Lonergan; Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

Moonlight, Written by Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell McCraney; A24


Arrival, Screenplay by Eric Heisserer; Based on the Story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; Paramount Pictures

Deadpool, Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick; Based on the X-Men Comic Books; Twentieth Century Fox Film

Fences, Screenplay by August Wilson; Based on his Play; Paramount Pictures

Hidden Figures, Screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi; Based on the Book by Margot Lee Shetterly; Twentieth Century Fox Film

Nocturnal Animals, Screenplay by Tom Ford; Based on the Novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright; Focus Features


Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Written by Jeff Feuerzeig; Amazon Studios

Command and Control, Telescript by Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser, Story by Brian Pearle and Kim Roberts; Based on the book Command and Control by Eric Schlosser; American Experience Films

Zero Days, Written by Alex Gibney; Magnolia Pictures

Here Are The WGA Nominations!

The Writers Guild of America announced their film nominations earlier today!  As always, the WGA nominations should be taken with a grain of salt, as several potential Oscar nominees — Brooklyn, Room, The Hateful Eight — were not eligible to be nominated for a WGA award.

With that in mind, here are the nominees!

Bridge of Spies, Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen; DreamWorks Pictures

Sicario, Written by Taylor Sheridan; Lionsgate

Spotlight, Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy; Open Road Films

Straight Outta Compton, Screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff; Universal Pictures

Trainwreck, Written by Amy Schumer; Universal Pictures


The Big Short, Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay; Based on the Book by Michael Lewis; Paramount Pictures

Carol, Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy; Based on the Novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith; The Weinstein Company

The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard; Based on the Novel by Andy Weir; Twentieth Century Fox

Steve Jobs, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin; Based on the Book by Walter Isaacson; Universal Pictures

Trumbo, Written by John McNamara; Based on the Biography by Bruce Cook; Bleecker Street Media

Being Canadian, Written by Robert Cohen; Candy Factory Films

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Written by Alex Gibney; HBO Documentary Films

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Written by Brett Morgen; HBO Documentary Films

Prophet’s Prey, Written by Amy J. Berg; Showtime Documentary Films

Film Review: Going Clear: Scientology and The Prison of Belief (dir by Alex Gibney)

tom cruise 2-1

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is one of the most genuinely creepy documentaries that I’ve ever seen.

Going Clear, which premiered on HBO earlier tonight, created a stir at Sundance earlier this year.  Based on a book by journalist Lawrence Wright and directed by veteran and award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, Going Clear is both a history and an expose of the notoriously secretive church of Scientology.  Featuring interviews with 8 former members of the church (including actor Jason Beghe and Crash director Paul Haggis), there’s a lot of information to be found in Going Clear but most reviews seem to concentrate on the picture that the documentary paints of two of Scientology’s top celebrity adherents, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

And yes, there is a lot of speculation and, in Cruise’s case, accusations about the two men to be found in Going Clear.  But, honestly, Going Clear is about a lot more than just celebrity gossip.  Ultimately, it’s a disturbing portrait of a cult that uses the facade of glamour to hide a culture of abuse, exploitation, and paranoia.  It’s easy to laugh at Scientology because, by this point, we all know about evil lord Xenu and we’ve all seen that South Park episode.  We’ve seen The Master, which featured Philip Seymour Hoffman as an almost likable charlatan.  Going Clear, however, makes a very convincing case that Scientology may be silly but it’s also nothing to laugh about.

The film opens with the story of L. Ron Hubbard, who is portrayed as being a pathological liar who channeled his need to tell stories into a prolific career as a pulp novelist.  We hear an intriguing story about Hubbard’s brief friendship with occultist and scientist Jack Parsons.  When Hubbard writes a self-help book called Dianetics, a mix of pseudo-science and pseudo-psychology, he launches the movement that will eventually become known as Scientology.

And, for the first 40 minutes of this film, it’s still easy to be rather dismissive of Hubbard.  When he’s seen in archival footage, he’s a ludicrous but deceptively non-threatening figure, a con artist who got lucky.  In fact, when he first appeared and started talking about his “beliefs,” my first reaction was to marvel at how perfectly Philip Seymour Hoffman captured Hubbard’s voice and mannerisms.

But, as Hubbard attracted more and more followers and became more and more powerful, it became apparent that Hubbard was much more than just a flamboyant con artist.  We hear about how he grew increasingly paranoid.  We hear about how schemed to destroy his enemies and just how easy it was to become one of those enemies.  We hear how he eventually retreated onto a boat where his followers obeyed his every whim.  Worst of all, we hear about how he kidnapped his youngest child and then taunted his wife by telling her (falsely) that he had the child killed and cut into little pieces.

Perhaps one of the creepiest scenes in the film is when Scientology’s second-in-command, David Miscavige, is seen announcing the 1987 death of L. Ron Hubbard.  Dressed in what looks like a military uniform and speaking in perhaps the smarmiest tones ever, Miscavige announces that Hubbard has gone on to another state of being and then salutes a rather ludicrous picture of Hubbard dressed like an admiral.  If Going Clear portrays Hubbard as being mentally ill, the portrait that emerges of Miscavige is far more disturbing.

Indeed, the film can be split into two parts.  If the first part is about Hubbard’s Scientology, the second part is about the organization under the direction of David Miscavige.  The majority of the people interviewed in the film were members under David Miscavige and all of them tell stories about a greedy and secretive organization that uses its tax-exempt status to essentially act outside the law.  Stories are told of mental mind games, physical abuse, and constant harassment.  In one of the documentary’s most haunting scenes, Sylvia Taylor (who was John Travolta’s former publicist) tells how she was forcefully separated from her baby and sent to work in a forced labor camp.

But, as disturbing as the interviews may be, the actual footage of David Miscavige himself is almost as unsettling.  Though Miscavige, Travolta, and Cruise all refused to be interviewed by the film, Going Clear is full of archival footage.  We see Miscavige speaking at a series of Nuremberg-style rallies and we listen as Miscavige give speeches that could just as easily pass for a Joel Osteen sermon.  When Miscavige announces that the IRS has recognized Scientology as a religion, he does so at a rally and finishes by reminding the huge and well-dressed crowd that their donations will now be tax-deductible. We see Scientology recruitment videos, which all feature clean-cut white kids with permanent and robotic smiles across their faces.   Much like the earlier footage of Hubbard, it would be silly if it wasn’t for what we know about the organization.

One reoccurring theme to be found in Going Clear is just how much Scientology values and exploits celebrity.  Yes, the film does explore Scientology’s relationship with both John Travolta and Tom Cruise.  The film goes so far as to portray Travolta as essentially being a prisoner of Scientology blackmail, a high-profile hostage who will never leave the church because the church knows too much about his private life.

And while it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Travolta, it’s far more difficult to feel sorry for Tom Cruise.  Before I saw Going Clear, I always assumed that Cruise was just another actor with a strange belief.   In Going Clear, however, Tom Cruise is portrayed as being a knowing participant in Scientology’s abuses.  As Scientology’s most famous member, Cruise is waited on hand-and-foot by adherents who, we’re told, make 30 cents an hour.

Much like David Miscavige, Cruise refused to be interviewed for the documentary but he’s ultimately undone by archival footage.  We watch Cruise salute both Miscavige and a portrait of Hubbard.  We watch him give a self-congratulatory speech that sounds just as smarmy as anything we’ve heard from Miscavige.  Perhaps worst of all, as far as Cruise’s credibility is concerned, we watch a video of Cruise vacantly laughing as he explains what Scientology means to him.

(What’s ironic, of course, is that for all the extra benefits that Cruise gets as a Scientologist, it’s pretty much destroyed his career.  Edge of Tomorrow was one of the best movies of 2014 but, at this point, who wants to spend two hours with a Scientologist?)

The film ends with a look at how Scientology deals with people who leave the church.  All 8 of the film’s interview subjects have chosen to leave the church and all 8 of them have been harassed and threatened as a result.  And, whenever one is tempted to laugh off the craziness of Scientology, they should remember the footage of several Scientologist thugs conducting a surveillance operation on the house and family of a former member.

A portrait of abuse, brainwashing, and greed, Going Clear is a documentary that everyone should see.