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.
WHERE IS ELIZABETH HOLMES NOW? THERANOS CEO 2019 UPDATE: http://j.gs/CUJU
If you’re interested in Elizabeth and the Theranos debacle the podcast “The Dropout” is worth checking out.
Getting your mantra from Hollywood: not a good idea. Dismissing trying is to dismiss the benefits of failure – not earthly or accurate to human endeavor.
Never underestimate the power of an attractive confident young woman to bowl over men, especially older men. Nature doesn’t follow the ‘everyone’s equal’ thing that so many believe in a legalistic well it must be true then vein.
(a pun, not intended).
Elizabeth Holmes is probably no more interesting than any fraudster. I think the question is not who is Elizabeth Holmes but rather how did a number of supposedly intelligent people allow themselves to be involved in the con. Do investors and potential board members do any due diligence before allowing themselves to be associated with new projects?
Anybody who has worked at an analytic lab task knew this was an impossibility as dictated by the laws of physics. “21st century snake oil” is more apt than vapor ware (which at least has the promise of potential reality).
there are substantive reasons in science for verification, controls, and repeated verification
Holmes sure got a lot of free media coverage. I would bet that more than 95 percent of everything hyped by our mass media is false, a lie or a gimmick. Lies, propaganda and hype are more interesting than facts and real science. They normalized this type of criminal Capitalism. Healthcare is a prticularly profitbale industry for cons like this, Holmes got caught, that is all. They will make ad example out of her, while people die every day, due to healthcare scams, and a complicit media.
However perhaps Capitalism is impossible without delusion. In reality only 3 in 100 businesses actually make it to support anybody, and become profitable at all. Most of the heroic efforts end in dissappointment. Therefore most people who are involved in starting a business, which is almost everybody these days, most of them, most of them, 90% , are involved in some level of delusion, and subterfuge and all manner of other business games. The point being ultimately, because they are effectively all delusions, the best delusion wins. The delusion which can pump the most amount of money through the system. Whichever delusions the capitalist public would like to enjoy. And Elizabeth’s delusion was the most magnificent delusion. Or, actually, and more accurately, “Illusion” .. Without her, as the extreme on one end of the thing called capitalism, there is no capitalism. In truth capitalism itself needs these shenanigans, to emphasize exactly what it is, and to make a space for the buyers of this kind of paper. There has to be bad paper, in order for there to be good paper, in real capitalism.
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