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The Inventor plays it safe with extraordinary material

There is a certain mythos behind the act of creation. It can be regarded as a kind of transcendence, as if godly, going places unimaginable to the average human. There are, of course, acts of creation happening on a daily basis from extremely regular people. We create sentences with a breath, we grow plants, we write a word on a piece of paper in our personal scrawl. Each of these moments is inherently just as unique as the creation of, say, the light bulb. But in public view, they can never come close. Elizabeth Holmes, the subject of Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor, is one of those rare people who — seemingly — reaches that specific kind of transcendence. Here is this young woman, barely 30 when she is named in the Forbes 400, creating a piece of technology that could alter the way we live and die. As the CEO and founder of Theranos, Holmes marketed a small, portable box — cheekily, cockily named Edison — that could run over 200 blood tests using blood from a finger prick. No more scary needles, no more tubes of blood. Your health, your way.

It’s unfortunate that it was all a lie. If it had operated the way she claimed it did, it would’ve been a modern miracle, and perhaps deserving of this grandiose mythos. Instead, Theranos lived and died in the Silicon Valley vacuum, a specific kind of environment that breeds exactly this, where speed trumps truth and innovation never stops. Gibney puts most of the spotlight on Holmes herself, zooming in frequently on her unblinking blue eyes, hooded by dark shadow and thick mascara. He watches her face every chance he gets, as if waiting for that crack to come. In her time at Theranos, she raised $400 million in investments, achieved a $9 billion company valuation, and graced the cover of numerous publications. She compiled an impossibly impressive board of directors, full of powerful, elderly men. She got chummy with the Obama administration, and was interviewed by Bill Clinton. All of this, and not a single real demonstration of the product — not even a PowerPoint. There must be something hiding behind her composed exterior, some clue as to how she pulled this off. 

The answer is quite simple, really, and it’s not hiding behind her smile. It’s the world we live in. There is nothing Holmes did that hasn’t been done before. She presented the future as the reality without knowing if she could actually get there. She dodged substantial questions and criticisms, speaking in empty, flowery language that felt like something but was ultimately nothing — not unlike politicians. The most important factor, the only factor, was that she had a great idea. And it was great. It was the kind of thing that people couldn’t help but believe in. It was optimistic and emotional and philanthropic. In a valley full of emojis and apps, she was promising true, scientific change. So what if she wasn’t there yet? Not one of her Silicon Valley peers had been ready when they said they were. As the documentary points out, not even Thomas Edison himself had invented the fluorescent lightbulb at the time he claimed. He, like everyone after him, had to fake it until he made it. The only difference between Elizabeth Holmes and the rest was that she was dealing with human lives.

In one bravura sequence in The Inventor, Gibney presents a CGI reconstruction of the inside of the Edison as described by those who worked on it. It’s a horror show, dried blood everywhere, needles malfunctioning, glass breaking. Your skin crawls imagining the poor chemist who had to reach inside and fix it. It’s moments like these that bring to light the terrifying reality of what Holmes was doing. If your app doesn’t perform properly, you can re-write the code. A glitch in the system loses money. But a glitch in the Edison? That loses lives. One technician states how, when testing 100 people with syphilis, only 65 would come back positive. The other 35? “There’ll be a lot more syphilis in the world”, he states. And he’s right.

So where does this leave Elizabeth Holmes? After the spectacular overnight fall of Theranos, Holmes still maintains that she did nothing wrong (despite facing charges of fraud and conspiracy). Was this an evil act, or a misguided one? Was she an evil person, or just a product of her environment? She lied and misled investors and the public for years. She delivered false results to patients willingly. She inflated value, success, achievement. And she did so at every single turn, seemingly without a second thought. Gibney seems most interested in her personal role in the deception but draws no conclusions as to why she did it. He hints at the societal influence, but only as an afterthought. And after it’s two hour run time, Elizabeth Holmes remains an enigma.

It’s easy to say that The Inventor bit off more than it could chew. This is the material that demands extensive exploration, the kind that cannot be presented in two hours. Really, it needed the O.J.: Made in America treatment (which ran 10 hours). As it stands, The Inventor is an ordinary documentary about extraordinary material. Is it worth watching? Yes, if only to spark your own explorations. Consider it the building blocks on which your personal thesis is built. Important, yes, but only the beginning.

Now streaming on HBO.

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