Is there a conman and grifter renaissance afoot or – like Andy Samberg said at this year’s Golden Globes – does it just seem that way because of our phones?
The past few months alone have seen not one but two documentaries on Billy McFarland and Ja Rule’s fraudulent millennial influencer honeypot, Fyre Festival. Last month, actor Jussie Smollett apparently decided that an elaborate con was the simplest route to career advancement. Then, of course, there’s the “T” word. Not for nothing, but the President of the United States has been under legal scrutiny or outright investigation for the entirety of his term.
It’s hard to say whether this is a golden era for conmen, grifters, and the fraudulent or if this is simply a golden era for learningabout conmen, grifters, and the fraudulent. Regardless, however, I do know that there might not be a more shocking or fascinating case of fraud than the case at the center of Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.
Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes always knew exactly who and what she wanted to be. According to Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s book that inspired The Inventor, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Holmes told her parents from a young age that when she was older she simply wanted to be rich. By the time Holmes had enrolled at Stanford in 2002 that dream had evolved somewhat into using Silicon Valley to make the world a better place…and become extravagantly rich in the process.
Holmes dropped out of Stanford to pursue the building of her Silicon Valley startup, Theranos. Theranos was first designed to create a patch that would help patient diagnose illnesses without the need of getting blood drawn. When that proved to be impossible, Theranos pivoted (ughhh it’s impossible to write about Silicon Valley sometimes without adopting some Silicon Valley lingo) to creating a machine that could provide an entire lab’s worth of diagnostic information off of a single drop of blood.
Theranos’ machine, dubbed the Edison, then 4S, then miniLab, was intended to revolutionize healthcare forever. Patients would no longer have to be poked and prodded like lab rats in a hospital to better understand their own health. They could simply have their finger pricked at a local drug store, or even in the privacy of their own home and receive information about their blood a la carte from Theranos, without even the need to involve insurance agencies.
Theranos’ vision was so powerful, and so seductive that some of the world’s most rich and powerful men and women (lol just men, mostly) invested billions of dollars in it. Henry Kissinger, James Mattis, Betsy DeVos, Rupert Murdoch, the Waltons, and others all invested in Theranos. Vice President Joe Biden toured Theranos’s facility and told Elizabeth Holmes “you are empowering people, whether they live in the barrios or a mansion, and allowing them to take control of their health care.” Theranos became one of Silicon Valley’s most mythical “unicorns” – privately held startup companies valued over $1 billion. In fact, Theranos’s evaluation would balloon to around $9 billion, making Elizabeth Holmes Silicon Valley’s first self-made female billionaire.
The only problem with the Theranos story was that it was all predicated on complete and utter bullshit. The miniLab never worked. But that didn’t stop Holmes and Theranos from acting as though it did.
Documentarian Alex Gibney is no stranger to telling the stories of conmen and grifters. Previously Gibney has covered the Church of Scientology (Going Clear), Enron (Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room), and a host of others via Netflix’s excellent “corruption anthology” series Dirty Money. As such Gibney is movie-making’s most natural choice for the definitive Theranos documentary. Problem is, The Inventor doesn’t feel all that definitive.
Part of this is because the story of Theranos isn’t complete yet. The company has been sued into oblivion but Elizabeth Holmes’ criminal trial for fraud has yet to begin. The other aspect holdingThe Inventor back, however, is that it just might not be possible to tell the definitive story of Theranos in two hours.
With The Inventor, Gibney opts for the traditional documentary route in telling Theranos’s story. The slickly edited doc consists mostly of mostly interviews with those involved, intercut with stock footage of Elizabeth Holmes wearing the black turtleneck and doing her whole Steve Jobs-ian schtick. The entire experience is watchable, entertaining, and even enlightening – it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
The Inventor seems to struggle to capture the enormity of the fraud in which it’s depicting. The interviews help as do the fun little animated graphics of blood vials breaking and spilling inside Theranos’s miniLab. By the end of The Inventor’s two hours, the story of Theranos has certainly been told but it hasn’t been lived. Theranos is the Citizen Kane/Michael Jordan/Beatles of Silicon Valley bullshit…and that’s saying quite a lot, given Silicon Valley’s addiction to bullshit
Gibney and the various interviewees involved (which includes Carreyrou, himself) are intelligent, deep thinkers in the genre of conmen and grifters. Still, the story of Theranos is so big that The Inventor isn’t able to satisfyingly capture the scope, which is frustrating because a two-hour documentary wasn’t the only option.
In March alone, HBO premiered or will premiere two other documentaries with atypical structures. Michael Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland featured four hours aired over two consecutive nights. The Case Against Adnan Syed, also four hours, will air one hour-long episode per week starting on March 10. It’s frustrating then that The Inventor, is going the most traditional route, existing as one two-hour entity, when we know other options are possible for such a big story.
Still, that story in question is so damn satisfying. The Inventor is able to present the finer points of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes’s fraud satisfyingly enough – if not definitively. If you want the definitive story, read Carreyrou’s Bad Blood. But if you don’t want to miss out on the next round of Fyre Festival-esque memery, set aside two hours for The Inventor….and then wish there were more.