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SXSW Movie Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Greetings from the aftermath of SXSW, where the best in tech and the bleeding edge of movies and music all swarm around downtown Austin, TX in a smorgasbord of capitalism and consumerism. (Don’t believe Sean Hannity saying otherwise)

And perhaps no film represented the worst, grifting, douchy edge of some of the folks attracted to this heady aroma of dozens of panels on blockchain and cryptocurrency than the new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, making its rounds at SXSW before a premiere on HBO this month from Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side).

The Inventor refers to documentary subject Elizabeth Holmes, the quixotic/messianic founder of Theranos, which promised to change the medical industry with a revolutionary blood test that would be cheaper, simpler, and only require a finger prick. It was unfortunately too good to be true, and the film traces the evolution from Holmes’ time as a Stanford dropout to the implosion of her company just a few years ago.

It’s a powerful film that portrays Holmes in an interesting light. She’s not quite a fraud– indeed, we’re left believing that she very much believed in her company’s ability to (eventually) deliver on what it promised. We’re left believing that the people at Theranos were good people just caught up in a delusion, willing to compromise because they believed in their vision so much.

Unfortunately, the film also leaves some of the most interesting stones unturned in this whole affair. As a visual and auditory medium, film has the power to deliver some information that an article or book never truly could. And there have been plenty of articles and books about Theranos and Holmes.

But what of her fashion sense, which is only all-too-briefly touched on in the film, of wearing this all-black costume and Steve-Jobs-invoking turtleneck? What about her signature vocal fry? It’s incredibly clear, although never stated, how much harder it was for Holmes to operate in Silicon Valley as a young, attractive woman and be taken seriously. While Gibney is a great documentarian, one can’t wonder if a female director would’ve had a more interesting take here.

Speaking of Gibney taking a pass, this is another infuriating aspect of the documentary is Gibney plays softball with the signature underlying issue behind the Theranos fraud: this is what happens when you have too much capital in the hands of too few people investing based on a whim.

Much like in his profiles on Enron, Scientology, Eliot Spitzer, Jack Abramoff, etc, Gibney gets all the facts right but fails to indict the larger system. Maybe electricity shouldn’t be traded like a commodity on the open market / Maybe there’s too much money in politics / Maybe venture capital isn’t the best way to decide on how to run our economy. Income inequality has pushed soooooo much extra money into the hands of the 1% they simply don’t know what to do with it, and waste it on frauds like Theranos because no one bothered to actually do the science and the homework before writing a big check.

Regardless of these shortcomings, this was one of the best documentaries I saw at SXSW this year and is worth your time if you can catch it.

3.75 out of 5 stars

General DC