In Silicon Valley, the old adage “fake it ’til you make it” is often a guiding principle of fledgling startup companies. Sometimes, turning a good idea into a viable business and, potentially, revolutionizing society, requires a bit of smoke and mirrors. The danger, of course, is knowing how to temper expectations while being careful not to believe your own hype.
The new HBO documentary, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes, one of the tech world’s most infamous hucksters. Holmes was the founder and CEO of Theranos, a startup that, when it launched in 2003, promised to change the world of blood testing. Despite the company’s lofty claims, it never delivered. As it became clear the technology was never going to work, Holmes refused to admit defeat, choosing to keep the ruse alive through a series of fraudulent acts and claims that were eventually exposed by Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou and whistleblowers from within Theranos.
Director Alex Gibney, whose 2015 doc “Going Clear” took on Scientology, a similarly shady institution built on lies, uses interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments in an attempt to understand Holmes and untangle the web of deception that was Theranos.
In the film, Holmes is something of an enigma. We get some of her backstories — growing up in a privileged family, attending Stanford — but it’s all vague. Like other Silicon Valley types, she comes off as intense and socially awkward, like a robot who beat the Turing test, but just barely. Much of her persona appears to be meticulously crafted and mannered: she rarely blinks, deliberately lowers her voice, wears black outfits exclusively, and keeps only bottled water in her refrigerator.
Despite her off-putting effect, Holmes had a way of getting people to believe in her. At 19, she dropped out of college to start Theranos. Within 11 years, she had built it into one of the most talked-about tech companies in the world, earning not only a seat at the table with big dogs like Google and Facebook, but also their envy. Holmes was someone people wanted to believe in. A young woman with a big idea that could revolutionize health care and change the world, she had a feel-good story journalists like to tell and investors like to back.
Gibney does a good job depicting how those duped by Holmes were forced to grapple with her deceptions. Journalists Ken Auletta of the New Yorker and Fortune’s Roger Parloff both give lengthy interviews revealing how well Holmes played them. Parloff, in particular, appears to be deeply rattled by how effectively Holmes short-circuited his journalistic instincts.
And, while Gibney doesn’t attempt to exonerate Holmes in any way, he does suggest that she believed in herself as much as others did. In archival interviews, Holmes is zealous in her defense of her Theranos’ viability in the face of damning evidence. It all paints a compelling picture of the lies on which Holmes built Theranos — of how she truly believed that she could buffalo employees, investors, journalists and clients until she perfected the technology.
Toward the end of the film, Gibney zooms out acknowledging that Holmes’ behavior, while egregious, isn’t atypical. The film notes the lack of transparency among Silicon Valley startups, and how so many are all sizzle but no steak. However, he stops short of making a more pointed indictment on the grift of the greater tech industry or capitalism as a whole.
Perhaps digging too deep reveals an inconvenient truth neither Gibney nor the audience is willing to acknowledge: that companies promising us convenience and efficiency are profiting on our privacy, security and civility; that the excess and cynicism of late capitalism combined with the death of accountability and authority created by the internet is only creating more grifters like Holmes — and Billy McFarland and Donald Trump — who use their wealth and privilege to bend reality to their will as they exploit us every step of the way.