Maria Montero

Theranos documentary review: the inventor’s terrifying optimism

A blood-spattered Theranos machine nearly punctured an employee struggling to fix it. This gruesome graphical rendering is what will steer you away from HBO’s “The Inventor.” Finally, it gives a visual look to the startup lab fraud detailed in the words of John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood.”

The documentary that premiered tonight at the Sundance Film Festival explores how fast moving and breaking the spirit of Silicon Valley is “really dangerous when people’s lives are in the balance” as former employee and whistleblower Tyler Shultz puts it. in the movie. Theranos promised him a medical testing device that made a single drop of blood from his finger more accurate than a painful syringe in a vein. What the patients ended up wearing was so inaccurate that it endangered their health.

But perhaps even more terrifying is the willingness of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes to deceive herself and everyone around her in the service of a seemingly benevolent mission. The documentary captures how good ideas can make people do bad things.

“The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley” juxtaposes truthful interviews with employees who eventually rebelled against Holmes with images and media appearances of his blatant lie to the world. He manages to keep the thrill of the story going instead of getting lost in the scientific discrepancies of Theranos deception.

The film opens and closes with close-ups of Holmes, demonstrating how events change his very bright smile and big blue eyes, from innovative potential to that of a sociopathic criminal. “I don’t have many secrets,” he tells the camera from the start.

Although the movie mentions early that her company worth more than $ 9 billion would end up being worth less than zero, it does a great job of building empathy for her that it can destroy later. You see him telling stories of death in the family and repeating his line about having to say goodbye to loved ones too soon. You hear how she’s terrified of needles and how she grew up, “my best friends were books.”

But then cracks begin to emerge as powerful old men, from professors to former cabinet members, pass over Holmes and become captivated in his cult of personality like snowballs of validation. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney has a knack for being spooked by his experience making “Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” He portrays Holmes’ delusion of grandeur with his Portrait shots alongside Archimedes, Beethoven and his idol, Steve Jobs.

The first red flag comes when Holmes names his initial device Edison after the historic inventor of the film claims you were a fraud yourself. Soon sources inside the company reported how the Edison and later Theranos hardware never worked well, but those demos were faked for customers and investors. Rather than stick to a firm timeline, Gibney bounces back to arm employees’ emotional arcs from excited to doubtful, and Holmes from confidence to paranoia.

Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” meticulously chronicled every little warning sign that worried Theranos staff about building a case. But the Wall Street Journal author’s work bled out, sapping the book of emotion and preventing it from tapping into the grandeur of history’s highlights.

Gibney fills in the blanks with indifferent scenes from Theranos’s faulty hardware. A blood “nanotainer” spills out of a table and fractures, a biohazard that awaits whoever tries to pick it up. The description of working in the unregulated laboratory at Theranos got the biggest buzz from Sundance’s audience. Former employees describe how Theranos recruited drifting people they suspected of hepatitis as guinea pigs. His stale blood evaporates into the air around machines dripping with red ink, covered in broken test tubes. Gibney nails the graphics, focusing a needle spraying droplets while a robotic arm splashes through a malfunction. I almost had to look away when the movie shows a hand reaching for the machine and just dodging an erratic syringe.

Still from Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley, an official selection from the documentary premiere program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly.

Sometimes Gibney goes a little too melodramatic. The flashing toy music box heralds a dream that turns into a nightmare, but after an hour it becomes maddening. The pace feels uneven, sometimes bogged down in Holmes’ personal relationships when he later appears to hasten the collapse of the company.

Elsewhere, though, the director takes advantage of former employees’ nervous laugh response mechanism to inject humor into the grim story. With such low precision, Shultz jokes that “if people are testing for syphilis with Theranos, there will be a lot more syphilis in the world.” The visual dramatizations of the audio recordings of Holmes’s journalists and eventual legal disputes bring this evidence to life.