Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Movie Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley **** / *****
Directed by: Alex Gibney.
Written by: Alex Gibney.
Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has made several films about scams, liars and scandals over the years – he really made his name with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and he’s made films about Eliot Spitzer (the underrated Client 9), the clergy abuse scandal (Mea Maxima Culpa) and Scientology (Going Clear). His latest film, The Inventor, is about Elizabeth Holmes – founder of blood testing company Theranos, which was going to revolutionize the way we have our blood tested, except for the fact that what she wanted to do may in fact be impossible, and even if it’s not, she certainly didn’t figure out how to do it. And yet, despite the fact that she founded the company at the age of 19, after having dropped out of Stanford, so she didn’t really have the medical or engineering training needed to pull it off, she was able to make Theranos into a multi-billion-dollar company, with powerful men like Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch and Joe Biden involved as investors or board members or simply fans. She was a star in Silicon Valley and beyond – after all, how many of these tech geniuses who found revolutionary companies are young women? She embodied the ethos of Silicon Valley – which is fake it, until you make it – basically pretending that she had already accomplished what she set out to accomplish. That would be bad enough – but not as immoral as it becomes here, because she actually roles out her company to test real people’s blood, and delivering them real results – for which they rely on to make health care decisions.
The documentary is fascinating – and a good recap for those who haven’t followed along with John Carryou’s work at the Wall Street Journal, or his book, where he exposed all of this – or didn’t listen to the excellent podcast The Dropout – which did the same thing. Gibney’s documentaries often seem to take this approach – taking complex stories, and distilling them down to their essence for those who haven’t been following along at home. He does it very well here – so even if it’s hard to argue that he does anything new here, he does get the essentials of this story out in just under two hours. And the advantage that he has over a podcast or articles/books, is that there is a wealth of footage of Holmes that make for fascinating viewing.
The basics of what Theranos did was simple – they said they were developing a system where instead of have to draw lots of blood from patients to run a test, you could draw just a pinprick worth of blood from a patient’s finger, and then test that for more than 200 different issues. It is a genius idea – and one that really could revolutionize lab testing. The problem, of course, is that Holmes had no idea how to do that – and no one she hired did either. They kept telling her what she wanted wasn’t possible the way she wanted it done. The machine used for testing – the Edison – would need to be a lot bigger than the sleek machine Holmes wanted. She styled herself after Steve Jobs – and throughout the film, you may well find yourself thinking back to Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Jobs movie – where he was an asshole, who insisted on his way, and eventually got it. The problem, of course, is that if you’re going to insist on things like this going this way, you have to deliver. Holmes never did – and yet she rolled it out into Walgreens in Arizona anyway. Desperate to protect the fact that her company couldn’t do what she said it could, she bought a lot of commercially available testing equipment, and just pretended her machines were doing the work. Many patients thought they’d only need that pinprick the company advertised – only to find out they needed a more traditional blood draw. The people who had their blood tested the way Theranos said they would, got results that didn’t make a lot of sense.
Gibney also seems – particularly early in the documentary – to be taking quite a few veiled shots at fellow documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. Morris, one of the best documentary filmmakers ever, was hired by Theranos to make a promotional film for them – and even if Morris usually has a sharp sense of sniffing out bullshit, it failed him here. He was used to make propaganda for company doing immoral things – and didn’t realize it. Early in the film, when Morris’ is brought up, it feels like Gibney is aping his style a little bit – in the music choices, the style of montages he is putting up, etc. Even if I love Errol Morris – and I do – he deserves the shots he takes here.
I do think that missing in the film is a question about what role Holmes’ gender played into what she was able to get away with for so long. Was she able to charm these older men into investing because she was charming and persuasive and conventionally attractive. Gibney kind of approaches this – and backs away. It goes unspoken in the film – which is a shame. Many of the women in the film seemed to see through Holmes quicker than the men did. Perhaps a female filmmaker may have been able to get to something more here. Gibney, it seems, is more interested in the facts.
And overall, I think that is an approach that works for him – and it works here. Yes, I think there is more to this story – more than the documentary tells to be sure, that we’ve already heard, but more that we haven’t fully explored yet. Regardless, whether you already know this story or not – The Inventor is a documentary you should seek out. It’s fascinating from beginning to end.

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