Alex Gibney makes a subtle, but salient, point in THE INVENTOR: OUT FOR BLOOD IN SILICON VALLEY. While recounting the curious story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the billion-dollar company she founded, he draws the obvious comparison between Holmes and her idol, Thomas Edison, but he doesn’t stop there. Using the tropes of a suspense thriller, he drops subtle clues about Holmes’ personality that are at once troubling and tantalizing. By the end, motives are not as clear-cut as we might have hoped, and the passions and quirks that drove Holmes have become a topic of speculation that don’t end with her.
Theranos promised to end lab testing as we know it. Expensive, time-consuming, and essentially mired in mid-20th century technology. Holmes conceived of a box, which she dubbed Edison, which would be able to perform 200 lab tests using a few milliliters of blood obtained from a finger-prick, rather than venous puncture, and it would do it (practically) while you waited at a fraction of the cost. To listen to Holmes speak of changing health-care by making a full slate of lab tests available to the public on a monthly basis is to be convinced. Her blonde hair’s disorder signals a disinterest in anything other than her vision for the future. The heavy eye-makeup and bright red lipstick are applied seemingly in haste. Her uniform of black pantsuit over a black turtleneck (her deliberate shout-out to Steve Jobs) dispensing with the necessity of wasting brainpower on deciding what to wear. Yet the heavy makeup, the bright red lips, and the carefully modulated tones with which she speaks of that vision strikes a dissonant note. This is not just a good storyteller, the skill that launched Jobs, this is someone who is obsessed with details, calling the disordered hair into question as less result of not wanting to waste time on it as a prop designed for the effect it will produce.
Holmes’ charisma, another helpful skill for success, is apparent on the men which whom she surrounds herself. From the high-powered venture capitalists, to former Secretary of State George Schultz, to his callow grandson, Tyler, they are in thrall to both project and inventor. Yet along the way, others note things about Holmes. She never blinks. She sits in on the interview process for hiring a receptionist for her billion-dollar company. When she gets bad press, her uniform changes, showing a throat that is sporting a small but prominent cross. As a teenager, she designed a time machine, including specs for its components. Actually bending the timespace continuum didn’t enter into it. Years later, at Stanford (from which she would drop to found Theranos at 19), she refused to believe that her design for delivering antibiotics via dermal patch was unfeasible. When the tenured professor told her it wouldn’t work, she found another one who gave her the answer she wanted to hear.
The documentary weaves these clues together until they form a snowball of avalanche proportions, sweeping up seasoned journalists and savvy venture capitalists who should have known better. The effect is stunning, as each revelation stuns for the sheer moxie behind it, and for the eager willingness to be convinced by Holmes by everyone who was. Even Tyler, when his disillusionment with Theranos, where he had interned with the enthusiasm of a the wide-eyed innocent that he was, finds himself being sucked back into the dream whenever he strayed from the lab into the carpeted world of marketers and administrators.
But it doesn’t stop there. As breathtaking as Gibney’s approach is to unraveling the story of an idea too good to be true, there is a larger issue to be considered. That would be what it takes to change the world. Edison refused to take no for an answer, using failure as the spur to keep trying to find the right filament for the incandescent light bulb, for example, while carefully marketing himself as America’s home-spun genius and keeping investors at bay when they demanded results. Jobs was the same, with a gift for inspiring those around him and bouncing back from Next and the Lisa. By presenting Holmes in her own words via past interviews, he shows her to us on her own terms, and those are of a personality that is not in synch with the norm. It is rife with hubris and unswerving determination. The question presents itself, if things had broken a different way, would she have been another Jobs? Would Edison have been another Tesla? Would Jobs have been another Osborne? Is being able to change the world invariably tied to a personality that cannot or will not conform to the norm?
There’s yet more. The idea that Holmes presented to a world that was delighted to endorse smacks of the ancient lure that the alchemists used on a gullible public. Some alchemists might have been just as convinced as those that financed them that it was possible to turn lead into gold. It’s a proposition so tempting that sometimes not even common sense can intervene. And that says as much about us, as it does about Holmes.