REVIEW: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019 – Documentary)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a review of The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley — Directed by Alex Gibney.

In 2019, we’ve already been given multiple tantalizing tales of young entrepreneurs revealed to be con artists, phoneys, or fraudsters. Call them what you will, but, with the two documentaries about the catastrophic ‘Fyre festival’ and now this documentary about a wannabe-disruptor and con artist in the biomedical industry, I find myself thinking about the loopholes these young people jumped through and how investors were fooled into making them frontmen, leaders, and innovators. In the case of The Inventor, it is not so much about incompetence but more about deception and how investors were deceived into propping up a transfixing, deep-voiced, and intense Stanford drop-out with delusions of grandeur, even as she spouted out incredibly vague descriptions of her grand idea.

In The Inventor, from Emmy and Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, opens with a peculiar interview where Elizabeth Holmes, the controversial founder and former CEO of Theranos, feels almost inhuman. The deep-voice feels almost put-on, the Steve Jobs-like turtleneck paired with the blonde hair and the intense eyes pull you in and disturb you all the same. Her answer — or lack thereof — to the question ‘can you tell us a secret?’ feels fascinatingly fake. This is an interesting and slightly unsettling opening to a documentary about a pathological liar that I had somehow never heard about before.

Elizabeth Holmes is a young and blonde wunderkind in the biomedical industry who, at the beginning of her career, had won the confidence of people like Joe Biden. The self-made-billionaire who would later be revealed as a fraud looked up to great inventors and minds like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, and, in his documentary, Gibney pays particular attention to this. She had a closet of entrepreneurial uniforms — all-black outfits with turtlenecks. She named a device after Edison. She, reportedly, had no time for hobbies or relationships. She was presented as a driven entrepreneur with a great idea.

Playing on the very real fear of needles and blood-testing, Holmes and Theranos hoped to revolutionize blood testing by building a device that would be able to get vast amounts of data merely from a few droplets of blood that could be retrieved a simple fingerprick. It sounds like a great idea, but Holmes knew full well that it was physically impossible, as her professors had adviced her. Gibney details her rise and then her fall as the Wall Street Journal revealed the troubling inaccuracies of their tests and the fact that their machine did not work as intended. Now potentially facing up to twenty years in prison, Elizabeth Holmes is pleading not guilty to the crimes she may or may not have committed.

This is a great story of deception, and Hollywood has taken notice. Even if it wasn’t already announced that Jennifer Lawrence is to play Holmes in an Adam McKay-adaptation of John Carreyrou’s book on the subject, you can, at the end of the documentary, already imagine some random Oscar-clip with some blonde actress speaking in a deep-voice playing as they list the nominees for Best Actress years from now. However, it would surprise me if Gibney’s documentary had that same kind of success next year.

Though the documentary certainly does a great job of uncloaking and revealing the true nature of this biomedical Wizard of Oz, it does little to get under the skin of Holmes — it merely pokes at it. Some of the footage and information is also slightly repetitive. However, this documentary does possess many great insights revealed in the interviews with whistleblowers and former employees, some of whom are trying to hold back a laugh. The extensive archival footage and revealing tape-recordings are also very impressive.

But perhaps the most effective thing that this documentary achieves is the way it presents the CG-images of the insides of Holmes’ blood-testing device. At first, it seems effective and undeniably impressive. But, then, you start to see what’s really true. You see test tubes dripping and breaking inside the machine, blood splatter all over the insides of the device, and the sharp, broken glass inches away from some poor employee’s hands while he or she is trying to fix a mistake. Trying to explain the workings of a biomedical device is a tough job, but Gibney succeeds thanks to increasingly frightening images of the insides, which, somehow, ties back to that fear of needles, blood-testing, and germs that Holmes original idea revolved around.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley is a fascinating overview of the propping up of a biomedical disruptor and the crippling revelations that tore Holmes’ deceptions to shreds. But it is merely skin-deep, and if you want to tell the story of a con artist such as Holmes you have to pierce the skin of the subject. Gibney is far too transfixed by her unsettling, unblinking stare to do just that. But, frankly, who can blame him?

7 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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