I direct a speakers series at Stanford Medical School which features prominent thinkers and policymakers in health. In 2015, as I huddled with advisors to choose our upcoming guests, I heard the name Elizabeth Holmes for the first time. Smart people I respect told me that she was upending the diagnostic testing industry and that she was being advised by luminaries like former cabinet Secretaries George Schultz and Jim Mattis. I didn’t really understand what her company did, but judging how many impressive people were impressed with her, I joined the rational herd and assumed she’d be a terrific guest. It was just dumb luck that I didn’t invite her before a brilliant investigative reporter exposed the fraud for which she is slated to soon go on trial. The story of this strange, beguiling, person and the company she founded is expertly told in Alex Gibney’s 2019 documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley.
As he showed in his documentary on Enron (my recommendation here) Alex Gibney has a talent for telling complex stories of corporate malfeasance in a clear and compelling fashion. With his trademark superb editing of his own interviews with principals, candid footage provided by insiders, and news stories, Gibney introduces us to the weirdly unblinking, suspiciously baritone-voiced, black turtleneck-wearing Stanford dropout who transfixed my local community and the world for a few years with the claim that myriad diseases could be detected in the tiniest drops of blood: Elizabeth Holmes. Gibney makes clear how Holmes’ boundless confidence in her own ideas likely made her more effective at persuading employees, journalists, investors, and politicians to aid her cause.
The gender dynamics Gibney illuminates are one of the more fascinating aspects of the film. Stanford Professor Phyllis Gardner, who was never fooled, notes that Holmes had a particular talent at getting old, highly accomplished men to see her as surrogate daughter or granddaughter, and to trust and protect her as such. Much of the media and political world, desperate to have a female Silicon Valley star to promote, also gave her a pass she did not deserve.
Even though some journalists are shown in a poor light, overall this movie made me feel better about the enterprise. Roger Parloff is candid about how he was initially taken in by Holmes and then to his great credit, publicly recanted. John Carreyrou’s investigative instincts and determination are impressive, as is the fact that his employer, the Wall Street Journal didn’t cave under pressure despite the fact that Rupert Murdoch invested in Theranos (That pressure by the way was applied by David Boies, who between representing Theranos and Harvey Weinstein serves as an object lesson in how to torch a hard-won reputation in late life).
The Inventor is not the most visually interesting movie. Gibney does the best he can, but there are only so many shots of blood testing equipment and corporate headquarters that the human eye can stand. Yet even after having read Carreyrou’s excellent book Bad Blood and knowing a number of the people in this movie, it still taught me new things and engaged me throughout. Bravo to Gibney, who again fulfills his reputation as one of the world’s leading documentary makers.