Americans love a flim-flam man. The con man is a twisted branch of the American Dream in that he can go from pauper to prince with just his wits and charm. We relish hearing stories not only of his meteoric rise with all its excesses but also his graceless schadenfreude-rich downfall. Which is why audiences flocked to dueling Fyre Fest docs, FYRE and Fyre Fraud, hungry to gobble up every morsel of the outrageous story of its fraudster co-founder Billy McFarland. And I suspect a similar motivation will attract viewers to HBO for The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Alex Gibney’s documentary about self-made millionaire and alleged scammer Elizabeth Holmes. But there’s much more shared between these TV docs than their smirking interest in con man comeuppance.
Like the Fyre Fest docs, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley seeks to determine the soul of its subject’s scam. Was Holmes knowingly deceiving employees, investors, and an alarming amount of patients? Or was she just faking it ‘til she made it? Did she genuinely believe her proposed plan to use a single droplet of blood to diagnose 200 different diseases with a machine the size of a home printer would be possible? A lot of people believed she could, and a lot of important people. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Joe Biden, Betsy DeVos, Rupert Murdoch, and Henry Kissinger were supporters, investors, and/or board members of Holmes’ company, Theranos. Now, none of them knew anything about blood testing or building such a sophisticated machine. Nonetheless, their wealth and involvement gave this Standford dropout an unquestionable air of authority. So her empire grew fast while she was making bold claims that too rarely got called out.
The Inventor interviews a slate of former Theranos employees, including two whistleblowers who began to fear the shoddy lab testing at this billion-dollar tech company could lead not only to misdiagnoses on a grand scale but also a potential syphilis epidemic. Like the Fyre Fest docs, you might watch these interviews with a restrained credulity. After all, these are people who saw behind the cool facade of Theranos’s PR, saw it was a sinking ship built on lies that were increasingly threatening not only the company’s future but also the public health, and now are, to some degree, trying to save face. Like FYRE, much time is spent speculating on the state of mind of Holmes, debating her motives, and wondering what her story has to teach us about hubris and ambition. And like Fyre Fraud, there’s some shade thrown at a rival documentarian.
Surprisingly, Errol Morris is the Fuck Jerry of The Inventor. The Academy Award-winning director of The Fog of War was another of the powerful men charmed/conned by Holmes. He lent her his talents and prestige by making commercials for Theranos. In The Inventor, Morris’s ads and softball interviews of Holmes are shown in snippets, along with footage of him seemingly swooning over her. Sadly, this brief foray into shade is about as exciting as The Inventor gets.
Much of the film’s visuals are modestly shot talking heads and Theranos promo materials, including many, many, many photos of Holmes. It’s the same expression: a smile that is pleasant at first glance, but on second thought, looks a bit too pressed, too tight, too practiced. Her eyes are wide-set and overtly alert, her stare penetrative and slightly unsettling. On repetition, they tilt further and further from pleasing to unnerving, especially as these headshots play over anecdotes about how Holmes would skirt questions and how she never seems to blink. These photos appear again and again, cross-faded over each other. And it makes the film visually stagnant, with diminishing returns that numbed me to Holmes’ robotic chipperness. I pined for something else, something more than what Gibney was showing. The stilted visuals and his smug sense of satisfaction in rolling out a parade of those big names fooled by Holmes detract from the disturbing information revealed within The Inventor.
The main reason to suffer through its stodgy style and snooty tone is that Gibney’s latest reveals the danger of believing something that’s too good to be true. Even if her investors didn’t know anything about blood testing or tech development, wasn’t there something suspicious about her claims you could jump right from sprawling testing facilities that demand tubes of blood to a teeny box that only needs a single drop? Experts in the doc guffaw in horror over how easily millions were deceived by Holmes’ earnest spiel about saving the masses from disease and health care debt. How millions gave their blood and trust to a company that did not deserve it. Too many were too in awe of Holmes’ dream that they didn’t dare look at the red flags.
There’s also a lesson in hype. Holmes built her name not only on the prestige and power of those she got to invest but also on those who came before her. She doggedly compared herself to Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, noting her habit of creating a self-imposed uniform like the former and naming her brainchild after the latter. Both were “great men” who built their brands on hype, especially when their innovations were subpar or flat-out fantasies. So the comparison is keen. She’ll be compared less gracefully to Archimedes and Beethoven. In archive interviews, she’ll quote Martin Luther King, Jr. and Yoda. And while Gibney’s doc marvels at the arrogance of all this, he veers away from addressing another potential factor in Holmes’ appeal. She defined success on the terms happily accepted by a white male patriarchy. Then she exploited that with the power of a pretty white woman. Her appeal was never overtly sexual, but Holmes was inarguably a mastermind in constructing her brand. Her careful blonde ponytail, all-black business casual uniform, and signature red lip feels calculated too, like she was carefully constructing a form of female ambition that would impress but not threaten the men she needed to back her with millions.
All in all, The Inventor feels like the nerdy, snitty sister to the feuding Fyre Fest doc twins. It’s informative, bringing together phlebotomists, engineers, reporters, and even a behavioral economist to pick apart the facts from Holmes’ fictions. But it’s got no flare. Granted, health care fraud isn’t as sexy or fun a topic as affluent Millenials reduced to tantrums and cheese-sandwich tweets. Still, as strangely captivating as its subject is and as dangerous as her con was, The Inventor never feels urgent or exciting. It cruises along like a smug lecture, occasionally throwing shade or namedropping historical figures with a cringingly false casualness. But for a doc all about passion and blood, it’s astoundingly lifeless.
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley makes its Texas premiere at SXSW. It will hit HBO on March 18.