Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Elizabeth Holmes, queen of lies



Looking back, it's puzzling that more people didn't wise up to Elizabeth Holmes more quickly. The Stanford dropout who claimed to have invented a revolutionary medical technology that she was somehow never able to demonstrate was a bizarre person. As a rare top tech woman who idolized Steve Jobs, she spoke in a weird baritone voice and kept a closet full of identical black outfits—including many Jobsian turtlenecks—at home, where she spent about four non-office hours a day sleeping. She rarely blinked her eyes, which was a little unnerving, and she had a presence so alien that you expected to see a lizardy tongue flick out from between her lips at any moment.

Now you too can have the Elizabeth Holmes experience in Alex Gibney's new HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Since Holmes embraced the idea of media adulation as her due, accumulating tongue-bath features in Fortune, Forbes, Glamour and Inc., gracing the studios of Charlie Rose and Jim Cramer, and hanging out socially with Katie Couric, Amy Schumer and, um, Jared Leto, Gibney had a fat archive of deluxe footage at his disposal—some of it shot in the stark white spaces favored by advertising directors, some of it even shot by the great Errol Morris (a veteran of many ad campaigns himself, whose classic crime documentary The Thin Blue Line seems to have been an influence on this film, especially on its occasional recreations and on Will Bates's moody, meditative score).

The story is fairly well-known by now. Engineering student Elizabeth Holmes drops out of college in 2004 to found a company called Theranos, with which she intends to shake up the diagnostic blood-testing industry. Blood tests are expensive and they often require multiple tubes of blood, gruesomely drawn from patients' arms. Holmes says she always hated this procedure and found it inadequate. Having a blood work-up done once a year only provided an annual snapshot of a person's health; if there were some convenient way for people to get their blood tested every month, the ongoing evaluation would be more like a movie. Holmes's better idea is a machine she calls The Edison, a sort of magic box in which up to 200 tests can be conducted on a single drop of blood in a matter of minutes. Nobody ever actually saw this machine work, because it never really did. (The Edison was of course named after the legendary Thomas Alva—"the first celebrity businessman," as Gibney puts it: a man who "invented himself." Holmes is a big Edison fan, too.)

To sell her idea to investors and other audiences, Holmes tells the story—over and over and over again—of a beloved uncle who died from undiagnosed cancer. Protecting the lives of our loved ones, she says, incomprehensibly, is "a basic human right," and she looks forward to "a world in which no one has to say goodbye"—meaningful pause—"too soon."

Gibney has called in a number of Holmes's colleagues and employees to testify to the disaster that Theranos eventually became. But the director's most eloquent witness is an Israeli-American named Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Ariely feels that Holmes may have started out with virtuous intentions but somehow wound up mired on the dark side. He looks at her journey as a "cautionary tale" for Silicon Valley—a place where the millionaire masters of tech talk about the future as if it were a place they actually visited. They tell spellbinding stories, and as Ariely says, "Stories have emotions; data doesn't." The reason so many people invested their belief and their money in Holmes and her magic box—without seeing any testing data whatsoever—was, according to Ariely, because they were drawn to "believing [her] story and being moved by [it] and being able to tell themselves a story."

By 2014, without ever having demonstrated the utility of her new blood-testing technology, Holmes's company was valued at $10-billion. By 2018 it was worth zero—literally: nothing.

What happened? In 2015, a Wall Street Journal reporter named John Carreyrou got a tip from a disaffected Theranos employee: Holmes's little black boxes didn't work, and in fact almost all of the blood-testing the company did was being carried out on common, old-school testing machines from manufacturers like Siemens. Theranos—which is to say Holmes herself—lied about all of this. And even after Carreyrou's devastating story landed, she continued lying—in the film, we watch her doing it, on one TV show or at one media conference after another, with a rigid space-girl smile glued to her face at all times. "I realized there was something wrong with her mind," says Fortune magazine's Roger Parloff, an early enthusiast.

Things went south very quickly. The Theranos compound became heavily staffed with bodyguards and pitbull lawyers to intimidate any employees who might be tempted to talk to the wrong people. A deal to install Theranos testing stations in Walgreens stores in Arizona collapsed, and the SEC and CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) swooped in. Very soon Holmes and her COO, Sunny Balwani (her burly boyfriend—"a Mark Cuban character," according to one sour observer) were charged by the SEC with "massive fraud;" Holmes was fined $500,000 and surrendered control of her company. Then, last June, she and Balwani were indicted on several counts of wire fraud and conspiracy-to-commit in connection with their falsifying of consumer blood-test results. They still await their day in court, as do, presumably, their bitter investors. When last seen, Elizabeth Holmes was still denying everything.

NEXT: What the Heck, Ben Sasse?

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  1. I don’t like documentaries, most are boring and yield nothing new. But I remember the years of waiting for Theranos to implode, and wondering when people would wise up to the latest cold fusion fairy tale. So maybe.

    1. Sounds like you’re watching the wrong documentaries.

      Two of my faves are “Pandora’s Promise,” which examines how an irrational and unfounded fear of nuclear energy derailed environmentalism, and “Dirty Wars,” which takes a truly scathing view of the unnecessary US involvement in the Middle East.

      An honorable mention goes to “Better, Stronger, Faster,” which looks at the laughable overreaction it government and a gullible public to steroids.

      1. Most documentaries take five or ten times as long to watch as to read. Unless the visuals add something, they just bore me to tears.

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    2. Out of morbid curiosity, I watched the Netflix doc about the Fire Festival. Basically the same premise as Theranos. Although, there was some schadenfreude in seeing people’s disappointment after doing something based on the word of media “influencers.”

    3. Then you obviously haven’t seen Senna or the Seven-Five

    4. Try documentaries that have stories that you haven’t heard or know little about. Examples: “The Imposter” about a child kidnapped in Ohio who ends up years later in Spain. Or “Science Fair” about brilliant teens competing in the International Science Fair. If you like 60’s music try “The Wrecking Crew” about the studio musicians who recorded the music for groups such as The Beach Boys. In theaters now is “Apollo 11” about the first moon landing, with footage not seen before.

    5. I get paid over $180 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I just got paid $ 8550 in my previous month It Sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it.
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  2. A great example of why we need more women in STEM.


    1. I maintain that if she were a man, this fraud would have been discovered many years sooner.

      She got away with it for so long because all the right powerful people so desperately wanted this to be true. Nobody was interested in confirming it, and anyone who asked questions was dismissed as jealous or somehow anti-progress.

      1. I’m not certain if it would have been discovered sooner. However, I will definitely agree that the only reason it went as long as it did was that people desperately wanted it to be true. I knew it was fake five seconds after I heard it (with the first four seconds confirming that this wasn’t a work of fiction). It just defies belief that anyone was fooled for a moment. If it used a cup of blood and took six hours, I would be impressed. However, a drop in minutes? By what magic would it be possible to non-destructively perform so many tests?

        I’m reminded of the book “No One Would Listen” by Markopolos. In retrospect, hundreds of people should have seen the Bernie Madoff fraud. All of the major players had enough information to see that it was too good to be true. However, even that was nowhere near as unbelievable as the Theranos scam.

  3. This reads like a straight news article. Is the movie any good?

  4. I work for a competitor lab. Everyone in the industry knew it was a scam, What she was promising is simply not possible. And once their labs were running, the rumors of bad results were rampant. It was the most predictable crash ever.

    I should have shorted the stock.

    1. I don’t work in any remotely related work, but it was obvious to me that such a radical improvement was hype and too good to be true, especially with all the delays and obfuscation.

    2. If you had shorted the stock it would have been more miraculous than Theranos’ medical claims. Theranos wasn’t publicly traded.

      1. Well damn. I feel better. And I’m glad it was just big investors’ cash that went down the toilet.

  5. Like everything in silicon valley, she was 10 percent tech, 90 percent hype.

  6. He looks at her journey as a “cautionary tale” for Silicon Valley?a place where the millionaire masters of tech talk about the future as if it were a place they actually visited. They tell spellbinding stories, and as Ariely says, “Stories have emotions; data doesn’t.”

    This is not a Silicon Valley story, it is the story of Humanity in general. From the pharaohs and their pyramids to every sitting president, people willingly toil away on a project not because they were convinced by some data, but because someone made a connection with them. Even the writers and commentators on this site are less persuaded by reason, and more persuaded by some story that set their bias, and they are now ever in search of data to support that bias. To be sure, over time, those biases shift, but people who can set aside their biases and be truly data driven are unicorn rare.

    Silicon Valley is noteworthy because it became awash in money during the Dot Com bubble. Billions and billions of dollars were extracted from pensioners funds to confirm the biases of venture capitalists in the Bay Area. It took close to a decade for many of the stock option millionaires to learn that their windfall was more circumstance than actual smarts (and some haven’t learned still).

  7. Ariely feels that Holmes may have started out with virtuous intentions but somehow wound up mired on the dark side….When last seen, Elizabeth Holmes was still denying everything.

    It must feel good to blame it all on the dark side. I have not seen the documentary but I have read enough about Holmes to suspect she has antisocial personality disorder and always has. Silicon Valley didn’t cause her behavior, it was the perfect outlet for it.

    1. Something wasn’t right in her head.

      Still would, of course.

  8. I’m waiting for you to see the Gaspar Noe film Climax, Mr. Loder.

  9. I get paid over $180 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I just got paid $ 8550 in my previous month It Sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it.
    ?????AND GOOD LUCK????? http://www.Theprocoin.com

  10. The fact that she’s still employing the fake deep voice is inexplicably stupid. Her lawyers and PR people gotta put a stop to that right away. Even in the 1% chance it’s not a fake affectation, they need to hire her some vocal coaches to get rid of it…

    1. There is no Dana, only Zuul.

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