****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.
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.
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.
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.
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.