I don’t have many secrets,” says Elizabeth Holmes, architect of the most fascinating modern fraud not involving Ja Rule, in the opening moments of a new documentary. That proves to be quite an understatement over the ensuing two hours, which reveal the greed and grift that turned Holmes’s company, Theranos, from a multibillion-dollar cause celebre into a cautionary tale of Silicon Valley hubris.
But the secret she keeps — and the question left maddeningly unanswered by the documentary — is by far the most compelling: Just who is Elizabeth Holmes?
In “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” we are treated to great expanses of curtain without learning much of the woman behind it. The film, airing on HBO later this month, comes from Alex Gibney, the documentarian behind a probing portrait of Steve Jobs and a searing look at Scientology. But where those movies balanced forensic detail with memorable human portraiture — Tom Cruise’s howling laughter in “Going Clear,” for example — “The Inventor” is a well-spun crime picture that never nails down its wide-eyed, deep-voiced star.
That’s not a critique of Gibney, who didn’t get the chance to interview Holmes, much less gaze into her soul. He makes the best of what he has, and the movie tidily stitches together Theranos’s rise and fall, from the empty promises and glowing coverage that made Holmes a Silicon Valley scion to the Wall Street Journal reporting that revealed the company’s deceits.
The short version of the Theranos saga goes like this: A precocious dropout dreamed of a better world, so she donned a black turtleneck and invented a device that could diagnose diseases on the cheap by analyzing blood from a pinprick rather than a venous draw. That vision won over heads of state and titans of industry, and everything sounded great until the device turned out to be more Mechanical Turk than spinning jenny.
“The Inventor” has few factoids you won’t find in “Bad Blood,” WSJ reporter John Carreyrou’s book on Theranos, but seeing it all play out on film has many delights. At one point Henry Kissinger, among the bafflingly out-of-place members of Theranos’ board, struggles with the disruptive technology of speakerphone before explaining that Holmes is “like a member of a monastic order.” Tim Draper, the famed venture capitalist who stands among Holmes’s last defenders, appears on camera in a bitcoin necktie and offers no indication that he is joking.
But every anecdote, like the Theranos story itself, comes back to Holmes. How did she convince so many people that a box of vaporware was worth billions of dollars? Is she a strikingly adept fraudster, or did she truly believe that Theranos was always just a few all-nighters away from changing the world? The parade of associates, journalists, and experts of various stripes in “The Inventor” can’t say for sure, and the absence of a Holmes interview makes the film feel like bit watching those proverbial blind men describe an elephant.
The movie’s best Holmes footage comes not from Gibney but a different Oscar-winning documentarian. Errol Morris, whose past work quite literally got a man off death row, served as Theranos’s in-house cinematic hagiographer at the company’s height. His credulous, head-on interviews with Holmes provide the ironic backdrop for the film’s damning revelations, and his roving camera supplies some of the only glimpses at unrehearsed behavior.
A company party finds Holmes robotically raising the roof to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” as Sunny Balwani, her one-time partner in business and romance alike, gyrates in place. Later, the couple enjoys a bounce house as employees play beer pong nearby.
Every snippet of unguarded Holmes leaves us wanting more, which “The Inventor” can’t provide. What of the 35-year-old behind the Silicon Valley fan fiction that is her official bio? Does she spend idle Sundays flitting through Instagram in judgement of her former classmates? Is she caught up on “Serial”? What did she think of “Green Book”?
That vacuum will soon be filled by fiction. Adam McKay, the director of “Vice” and “The Big Short” who seems to make movies for people who find David O. Russell too subtle, is at work on a feature film. It, too, is called “Bad Blood,” and Jennifer Lawrence is attached to star as Holmes. Whether she plays Holmes as a misguided visionary or a blinkered sociopath is yet to be seen, but either way, we’ll be no closer to understanding the truth.