The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley
"The film’s visuals are at their best when contrasting truth and lies." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

You’d be surprised how long a revolutionary tech company can get by without any actual revolutionary technology. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley details how startup Theranos attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, built a massive headquarters and hired hundreds of employees, all in the service of a goal that was never close to attainable.

Director Alex Gibney is no stranger to documenting scandals, having tackled subjects including Enron, Scientology and Lance Armstrong, to name a few. Here, he again lays out his interviews and research in a clear and engaging manner. The end product is a damning portrait of modern Silicon Valley, where companies have distanced themselves from accountability and regulation.

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Theranos is an extreme example of that trend. First, we meet Elizabeth Holmes, a CEO who charmed everyone with her bold ambition. The surface story is irresistible: Here’s a woman who dropped out of college and founded her company at age 19. She quickly became known as one of hottest up-and-coming CEOs, earning comparisons to the likes of Steve Jobs and Archimedes. The opening sequence shows her discussing her desire to make blood-testing easy, affordable and stress-free. The key to this goal is the Edison, a small machine that does all the tests a giant blood lab can do, but with only a few drops of blood from the fingertip.

However, the portrait of that bold investor morphs into something much more unsettling. Holmes, it turns out, ignores warning signs, looks for easy ways out, surrounds herself with heavy hitters from both major US political parties and lies and cheats to keep her company afloat. Her enigma hangs over the film — is she a pure con artist, or has she also deluded herself? Even if it’s the latter, she behaves in bad faith to her employees, investors and the public.

Early on, a scene describes the period between when Thomas Edison patented and announced his commercial lightbulb and when he finally released it to the public. In the meantime, he did not have a working product because the filament kept melting. The film says Edison didn’t always tell the full truth in his demonstrations to reporters, and just barely solved all the problems before it was too late to keep his patent. This fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, Gibney argues, laid the groundwork for Holmes to justify her actions.

But there are some major differences between Edison and Holmes. First, there was no leap forward that actually allowed blood tests to be done with smaller samples — it was all a fabrication. Second, we’re dealing with actual people’s health — an area where you should never be sloppy.

The film’s visuals are at their best when contrasting truth and lies. CGI models first show the idealised premise of the Edison, then later shows the horrifying, blood-splattered mess that employees were trying to work with. Other times, it feels like GIbney is low on B-roll, perhaps because Holmes didn’t allow much personal access. One shot, of a company meeting in front of a big-screen TV, appears whenever nothing else fits. Promotional photos of Holmes holding the Theranos mini-vile of blood appears in a series motion-graphic exercises.

But the story stands above these shortcomings. A sense of hope even shines through this tale of malfeasance. As long as there are employees willing to whistle-blow on improper practices, and journalists willing to push for the truth, the most intimidating behemoth can’t stop them. But in the future, we’d do well not to let that behemoth become so powerful.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2019
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The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley packshot
With a magical new invention that promised to revolutionize blood testing, Elizabeth Holmes became the world's youngest self-made billionaire, heralded as the next Steve Jobs. Then, overnight, her $10-billion-dollar company dissolved. The rise and fall of Theranos is a window into the psychology of fraud.

Director: Alex Gibney

Writer: Alex Gibney

Year: 2019

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2019

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