‘Inventor’ unveils disgraced CEO
Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes’ rise and fall.
PARK CITY, Utah – The name on everybody’s lips was Fyre.
Sure, it was the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Alex Gibney’s enthralling new HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” a deep dive into the meteoric rise and fall of blood-test startup Theranos.
But more than a few moviegoers were overheard Thursday night comparing that company’s disgraced CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, to sleazy Fyre founder Billy McFarland, whose doomed 2017 music festival is the subject of two docs: Netflix’s “Fyre” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud.”
After seeing “Inventor,” the similarities between the young entrepreneurs are obvious: Despite seemingly good intentions, their lies snowballed as they refused to admit failure.
McFarland promised millennials an Instagram-worthy getaway he had neither the funds nor space to make a reality, while Holmes raised hundreds of millions for an affordable, needle-free blood test that wasn’t yet fully functional.
And that’s where “Inventor” goes from merely interesting to totally insane. Through interviews with former employees, we learn how Holmes allegedly would trick investors by administering their blood tests with faulty Theranos technology, then take them out to lunch while lab technicians got results using rival companies’ machines. The Theranos equipment (known as Edison) also was frequently dangerous, with malfunctioning parts that put phlebotomists at risk of blood exposure and wildly inaccurate data that could lead healthy patients to believe they’re sick.
Theranos whistleblowers Erika Cheung and Tyler Shultz allege that they were told to falsify or remove any results that seemed suspect, which effectively meant lying to patients. And yet, none of that deterred the famously secretive Holmes from striking a deal with Walgreens in Arizona, where she tried to mass-market Theranos blood tests before the company was taken down by an explosive Wall Street Journal investigation.
Similar to last year’s breakout Sundance documentary “Three Identical Strangers,” “Inventor” unfolds like a twisty, psychological thriller that asks its audience to play judge and jury for its subject. Is Holmes a martyr whose “fake it till you make it” mentality will eventually lead to important medical advancement? Or is she just a highly delusional, pathological liar?
Theranos shuttered last fall after blowing through roughly $900 million from investors, and Holmes was charged with wire fraud and conspiracy. She pleaded not guilty.
“I never thought that she was Bernie Madoff, in the sense that from the beginning, she was running a scam and trying to make a lot of money for herself,” Gibney told festival-goers during a post-screening Q&A.
“I think she had a noble vision. Whether that was narcissistic or she was a sociopath, I’m not qualified to say. But I do think that was part of why she was able to convince so many people – and convince herself – that what she was doing was great, which allowed her to lie so effectively.”
Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is revealed in “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,”