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The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley - A Review

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****THIS REVIEW REVEALS SOME MINOR INFORMATION FROM THE DOCUMENTARY!! NOTHING MAJOR - BUT YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!****

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. This documentary is mildly entertaining but lacks insight and depth. Not awful, but not transcendent either…if the subject matter intrigues you then check it out.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, directed and produced by Alex Gibney, is an HBO original documentary film that examines the meteoric rise of “inventor” Elizabeth Holmes and her health technology company Theranos.

There is nothing quite as enjoyable to me as a great documentary. I can watch truly great documentaries over and over as they feel like miniature master degrees in whatever subject they dissect. Film’s like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War or just about anything by Adam Curtis are films I revisit nearly every year and never regret it.

I was excited to see Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor, as he definitely has a knack for choosing fascinating topics. That said, Gibney, who won his Oscar for the profound Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and multiple Emmys for the stunning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, can be an uneven filmmaker who often explores intriguing topics in his movies but at times fails to adequately document his subjects to a deep enough degree to satisfy beyond a passing and surface interest.

The Inventor is one of those type of Gibney films that tackles an interesting topic but fails to do so in an in-depth enough and compelling enough way. The Inventor reminded me a little bit of his highly praised (it won 3 Emmy awards) film about Scientology, Going Clear. I liked Going Clear and found it to be engaging to a certain degree, but ultimately it fell well short of being an earth-shattering revelation. Similar to Gibney’s film on Wikileaks and Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets, a pretty shameless and embarrassing hatchet job on Assange, with The Inventor Gibney seems to be seeing his subject through a biased lens. With We Steal Secrets, Gibney’s was decidedly against Assange, but inThe Inventor he is most definitely biased in favor of Elizabeth Holmes….but more on that in a bit.

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With The Inventor, Gibney once again dives into a riveting subject, but only swims in the shallow water of it and fails to give viewers much to sink their teeth into beyond the headlines. Elizabeth Holmes is a character for the ages, but Gibney barely scratch the surface of who she REALLY is in this film. On top of that Gibney never gets deep enough into the weeds of what exactly Holmes was trying to create at Theranos and how she planned to do it, to ever make viewers feel like anything more than just another mark for her con.

The film, while entertaining to a certain degree, is problematic for a variety of other reasons as well. The most glaring of which is the blind spot the filmmaker has in regards to his subject. Yes, Gibney exposes Holmes’ fraud, but he never exposes HER for being a fraud. Instead, what Gibney does is cloak Holmes in a protective blanket which imbues on her with only the best of intentions and the inability to be consciously or maliciously deceptive.

In this way Alex Gibney is recreating the same psychological, mental and emotional gymnastics that Elizabeth Holmes’ targets did when they fell under her spell. Holmes weilded her femininity like a martial art against the patriarchal system within she worked. Holmes’ juijitsu turned the unconscious sexism and paternalism of the men she targeted against them. The paternalism, sexism and soft misogyny of the powerful men she conned, who are a Murderer’s Row of Hall of Fame assholes that include men like Bill Clinton, General Mattis, David Boies, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (who proves what a ass he is by siding with Holmes over his own grandson) among many others, caused them to fall for Holmes’ lies for two reasons. The first is that they overestimated her intellect and value because, ironically, they wanted to be seen supporting a women in order to quell their fear of being labelled sexist. The secondly, due to their paternalism and sexism, they underestimated Holmes’ ability for villainy, and she exploited the weakness of these men to her benefit.

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The irony of Holmes’ epic story is that these powerful men treated Holmes different and held her to a different standard BECAUSE she was a women. The reporters and writers who aided her rise to the status of media darling and science and business genius did the same thing, failing to adequately doubt and question her simply because they never considered she was capable of straight out lying to them. Even the reporters who spoke with her AFTER her scam became public, men like Sanjay Gupta and Jim Cramer, didn’t hold her feet to the fire like they would have with a man. Holmes was able to keep her scam alive for so long because these men treated her with kid gloves.

Interestingly enough, Holmes’s scam almost never got started because of a women, Professor Phyllis Gardner, her advisor at Stanford, who basically told Holmes her idea was scientifically impossible. Instead of trying to change her advisor’s mind, Holmes changed advisors…which is a perfect encapsulation of Elizabeth Holmes approach to life. In my eyes, at best, Holmes’ suffers from a the most acute case of cognitive dissonance on the planet, at worst she is a conniving and manipulative criminal mastermind. For director Gibney, who refuses to consider that Holmes was driven by greed for money, power and fame, Holmes is earnest in intent but misguided in execution. According to Gibney, Holmes’ greatest sin is being too much of a zealot for her noble cause.

The reality is that if Holmes were a man, the idea that she wasn’t anything but a greedy and evil con artist would never even remotely be considered…and rightfully so. Think of all the Wall Street snakes who scammed Americans out of their savings with the housing bubble, nobody thinks, “oh gee…they just wanted everyone to be able to own a home”…no…people think that those pricks were trying to get rich off the backs of working people…because that is exactly what they were doing.

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In the case of Alex Gibney’s film, he seems to suffer from an unconscious bias that makes him hold Holmes to a very different standard and lets her off the hook for her nefariousness activities. An example of this is that besides lowering Holmes intent and responsibility regarding fraud, he also lowers the standard for her regarding her sexual relationship at work. Holmes started dating Sunny Balwani, a tech entrepreneur twenty years her senior, when she was 19 and he was married to another woman. Balwani was a key advisor to Holmes in the early development of Theranos and after he got divorced from his wife, Holmes moved in with him. Balwani eventually became second in command to Holmes at Theranos but when the sham was exposed and things went bad for the company, she broke up with him and fired him. If a man had behaved the way Holmes did in her personal life, it would have been a much greater focus of the story of The Inventor, and would have been used to establish the lack of moral and ethical fiber of the person running the company. But in The Inventor, the fact of Holmes questionable conduct with Balwani is reduced to nothing more than a throw away line near the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Holmes captivates our imagination because she is so representative of the surreal age in which we live. Holmes is emblematic of our scam culture where style overwhelms substance, the subjective trumps the objective, where shortcuts are the only way to travel and truth is a punchline.

Holmes is similar to Trump in that her con is so obvious that it is stunning that anybody falls for it. Like Trump with his signature (and ridiculous) hair-do and his never buttoned blue suits with long ties, Holmes literally wore a costume, all black with a black turtleneck, a cheap imitation of her hero Steve Jobs.

Her use of story and language was also absurdly obvious as to her dishonesty as she simply regurgitated and repeated the same origin story over and over again and then used pseudo-scientific/tech marketing talk to cover her lack of any substance. Words like “inflection point” and “paradigm shift” or the use of “chemistry” as a verb were dead giveaways to her deceitful intent.

The most glaring giveaway though was her voice. Good Lord that voice. Her voice is so phony and put on it is remarkable no one did a spit-take in her face upon hearing it. But the voice gives away the game that she is an obvious fraud and walking lie…and those that fell for scam did so BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO FALL FOR IT. These people, and they were mostly men, wanted Holmes’ story to be true so they convinced themselves that it was.

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In this way Holmes is also the symbol for today’s neo-feminism, which alleges to want equality but only accepts the diminishing of standards and the lowering of bars for women. Neo-feminism loves to demand equal opportunity but also loves to shirk equal responsibility. That said, it is pretty amusing that Holmes used the patriarchy’s literal and symbolic desire for her and their shameless politically correct yearning to be seen as “allies” to women, to advance her scam and sucker investors and big names to support her fraudulent project.

None of these types of subjects, like Holmes as symbol for modern feminism, or the ingrained sexism of the men who fell for her, or the soft treatment she got because she was a women being integral to her scam flourishing, are ever broached by Gibney in his film. Instead Gibney sticks to a very straightforward and very forgiving narrative that never gets too deep or too insightful and the film suffers because of it.

According to Gibney’s movie, Holmes’ scam is just something that happened that is not indicative of anything else and is not symbolic of the age of fraud in which we live. The reality is very different, as one glance at the news will tell you that Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times. Our charlatan president, the Russiagate hysteria, the Fyre Festival nonsense, the college admission payola scam, Jussie Smollett’s shenanigans and on and on and on including our fraudulent economy and political system…are all hoaxes, scams and frauds. This is why Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times and it is a shame that Alex Gibney did not have the insight, self-knowledge and skill to bring that much deeper and more important story to light.

In conclusion, while The Inventor is entertaining on a certain gossipy level, it lacks the insight, depth of subject and profundity to be considered a great documentary. The film is currently airing on HBO, so if you want to spend two hours being mildly amused at the absurdity of it all, then you should check out The Inventor, just don’t expect transendance.

©2019

Leaving Neverland: A Review

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****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!****

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. See it to see and hear the truth regarding one of America’s most famous icons.

Leaving Neverland, produced and directed by Dan Reed, is a documentary that tells the story of Michael Jackson’s child sexual abuse of James Safechuk and Wade Robson from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. The film is four hours long and is broken down into two, two-hour segments, which originally aired on HBO on March 3rd and 4th and are currently still available on that channel.

Leaving Neverland is one of those documentaries that takes a nebulous perception and turns it into an unavoidable reality. Michael Jackson, who settled a child sexual abuse lawsuit for a rumored $25 million in 1993 and was acquitted of child sex abuse involving another boy in a separate case in 2005, has long been assumed to be a pedophile…Leaving Neverland removes all doubt from that assumption.

The film is basically a collection of very long interviews with Safechuk and Robson where they describe in extremely explicit detail their sexual interactions with Jackson when they were minors, in Robson’s case as young as 7 years old. While the explicitness of their stories is uncomfortable to hear, it is very effective in shattering any illusions that might cloud the cold-hard reality of Jackson’s perverse sexual predilections. The explicitness of the language used is very beneficial, as terms like “molested” or “fondled” sound less damning and less evil than hearing the precise descriptions of what Jackson was doing to these little boys.

Director Reed wisely cuts back and forth between the explicit interviews of the grown men and footage of when they were young boys at the age when they were abused. This approach is highly effective in bringing home the point of Jackson’s disturbing depravity and the scope and scale of his evil.

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Safechuk and Robson come across as forthright and believable in the interviews. If they are lying about the nature of their relationship with Jackson then they are two of the greatest actors to have ever walked the earth. Robson is much more camera friendly and articulate than Safechuk, but Safechuk’s pure being, his posture, his energy, the look in his eye, is devastating testimony in and of itself, and is a searing indictment of Michael Jackson.

The film does not have any interviews from members of the Jackson family or any counter arguments to Safechuk and Robson, and some may see that as unfair, I do not agree. For thirty years we have heard the Jackson story while the children he abused have been silenced due to his wealth and power. We’ve heard enough from Jackson and company, and Leaving Neverland gives the side of the story we haven’t heard yet and that is what makes it so valuable.

What is so striking about the documentary is the news footage from the height of Jackson’s fame in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Jackson’s pedophilia was hiding in plain sight for all of us to see…in fact he was even flaunting it. The footage of Jackson gallivanting around the globe hand in hand with little boys is disgusting as he acts like a rock star parading around in public with a super model as arm candy and trophy girlfriend. And just like some rock star would want the status symbol of being seen in public with the latest and hottest Hollywood ingenue, Michael Jackson did the same thing with little boys, going public with his “friendship” with first Emmanuel Lewis (of Webster fame) and then later with Macaulay Culkin.

Jackson is just a despicable and deplorable human being, but his staff, family and enablers are equally repugnant for aiding and abetting his blatantly obvious sexual predation. As the documentary shows, Jackson’s staff members were actively recruiting boys to be Jackson’s companions and were complicit in keeping parents away while the abuse was happening.

Leaving Neverland is not just an indictment of Jackson, but of us all. His fans, the media and the public in general refused to see or believe what was right in front of our eyes because it was easier to ignore it, laugh about it or pretend it wasn’t happening. How Jackson did not get his head caved in by either a raging father of an abused child or by a security staffer with a conscience, is beyond me.

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The documentary is very effective in revealing how Jackson didn’t just seduce little boys but also their entire families. The interviews with Safechuk’s and Robson’s mothers are very enlightening and at times infuriating. These women, whose job was to protect their kids, fell for Jackson’s schtick hook, line and sinker and their boys paid the price for it. The mother’s, especially Ms. Robson, inability to take responsibility for their failure is mind-boggling, and the fact that Ms. Robson STILL doesn’t want to hear what happened to her son is astonishing. But this is what the allure of fame does to people, it distorts and compromises their soul, and they end up selling their son’s youth and innocence for a shot at the brass ring.

After the airing of the second part of the documentary, HBO aired a special interview with Oprah Winfrey and James Safechuk and Wade Robson. Considering Oprah herself has talked publicly about being sexually abused as a girl and the intracicies of that, you would think she’d be a good choice to host program…but you would be wrong.

Oprah is a terrible interviewer as she always makes everything about her and her opinion…but she is an even worse human being because she is so devoid of self-awareness yet is delusional enough to think that she is entirely self-aware. During the post-doc interview Oprah has the temerity to tell Safechuk that he hasn’t evolved as much as Robson, which if Oprah were half as “evolved” as she thinks she is she would understand is a really vicious thing to say to a survivor, especially one in such a vulnerable state as Safechuk.

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What was stunning to me is that Oprah spent the hour pontificating on how wise she is about abuse and how it is really seduction, but she fails to ever mention that she interviewed Michael Jackson in 1993…and it was a patty cake interview if there ever was one. During that interview Oprah never held Jackson to account or held his feet to the fire for his “bizarre” and curious behavior with boys. Oprah…like the rest of America and like Safechuk and Robson and countless other boys and their families…was seduced by Michael Jackson and the allure of his fame and power, which is saying quite a lot considering Oprah’s fame and power…and it would have been interesting for Oprah to talk about HER experience of that seduction and how she was either wittingly or unwittingly blind to Jackson’s depravity…instead of doing what she did and giving her opinion on other people’s experience of that.

The enormity of Michael Jackson’s fame and celebrity, especially back in the 80’s and early 90’s is difficult to fathom in this day and age of such a fractured and fragmented popular culture. Michael Jackson wasn’t just a superstar, he was a supernova. Jackson was the most famous and identifiable person on the planet back then and more people knew his name than any other person’s in the whole world.

When you look at Jackson’s discography and album sales it is unbelievable. Jackson was considered a performing prodigy and was a superstar with his family band The Jackson Five at the age of 11. After an awkward adolescent transition, Jackson returned to glory as a 21 year old with his 1979 hit album Off the Wall, which is a terrific album that sold 20 million copies.

The follow up to Off the Wall was Thriller, which sold an estimated 66 million copies and is the greatest selling album of all-time. Thriller undeniably made Jackson the biggest pop star in the world. No one has ever or will ever surpass Thriller’s sales numbers.

After Thriller Jackson could have sold 20 million copies of any piece of crap he threw out there, and that is kind of what he did with the awful Bad (1987) and the even more abysmal Dangerous (1991), which sold 35 and 32 million copies respectively.

The success of Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad and Dangerous gave Jackson enormous amounts of wealth and power and with that money and power Jackson could do whatever the hell he wanted…and sadly…what he wanted to do most of all was to have sex with young boys.

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After watching Leaving Neverland and the Oprah special I sat contemplating what I had just seen and I had two thoughts. The first thought was how striking it is to me that in the 1980’s, a decade of America’s alleged rebirth and renewal under Ronald Reagan, the biggest and most beloved music star was Michael Jackson and the biggest and most beloved television star was Bill Cosby. These two men were very similar in a lot of ways in that they were two Black men whose success crossed color lines, who cultivated personas that exuded a gentle kindness and moral purity, and who were sexual predators who preyed upon the defenseless, in Jackson’s case young children and in Cosby’s case drugged and unconscious women. I have no idea what that observation means in a broader sense, maybe something about masks and facades and how to succeed in America, I don’t know, I just thought it was very curious that these two men were so successful in their careers at that time period but also so successful at getting away with their sex crimes for so long.

The second thought I had was about Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in Jackson’s 2009 death from an overdose of propofol. Murray served two years in prison and was pilloried by the media for being responsible for “killing” Michael Jackson. After watching Leaving Neverland, I think Conrad Murray deserves a fucking medal.

In conclusion, Leaving Neverland is a difficult documentary to watch, but I highly recommend you do watch it because we must never look away from the truth, no matter how ugly it is or how uncomfortable it makes us.

©2019