I don’t know if we’re living in a golden age of grifters, but they certainly seem to have a lot more marks at their disposal. We like to think that these marks are simple rubes, greedy for easy money. Watching Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley I was frequently reminded of David Mamet’s House of Games where the mark is wealthy and educated. Gibney’s portrait of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes doesn’t go so far as to call her a con artist, but rather to indict those that bought her fraud because the business was supposed to do good. The moral quandary at the heart of the film is whether or not grift is forgivable if it’s done in service of altruistic goals. But all the information Gibney provides further serves to damn Holmes, painting her as delusional and reckless at best and cruel and callous at worst.
The film chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos and its charismatic, enigmatic founder Elizabeth Holmes. Theranos was a Silicon Valley-based company that wanted to “disrupt” blood testing by doing tests from a pinprick of blood rather than full test tubes with blood drawn from veins. Holmes, with her confidence, determination, and idolization of figures like Steve Jobs, built the company to evaluations worth tens of billions of dollars while also being a media darling. However, Theranos’ machine, The Edison (aptly named after another entrepreneur who loved to build his own myth), didn’t work, and Holmes started to extend her fraud to cover up the failings of her company.
Rather than simply write Holmes off as a con artist in the ilk of someone like Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland, Gibney posits that Holmes bought her own hype and genuinely believed in Theranos’ mission to offer low-cost blood testing. For Holmes, the tragedy isn’t defrauding investors or endangering customers with bad blood tests; the tragedy is that she was too wrapped up in her own myth and lofty goals to see the failures of Theranos.
And I don’t know if I totally buy that. I don’t know if I buy Holmes as a gambler who got in over her head and had to tell new lies to cover up the old ones. Part of the issue is that we never really get to know Holmes beyond her being an unremarkable student at Stanford who was able to hoodwink older men who were taken with her confidence and charm. Beyond that, it’s hard to know her motives even though that’s what Gibney is eager to find. So we have to judge her by her actions, and those actions are deeply unflattering. It may be a Silicon Valley ethos to “fake it till you make it” but Holmes lacked the humility and the honesty to say, “We haven’t made it and it will take an unspecified amount of time until we do. Hard things are hard and revolutionary technology doesn’t happen overnight.” Instead, she constantly worked to further her deceit and cover up her company’s inability to fulfill its promises.
However, it’s also difficult to see The Inventor as a story about Silicon Valley since Holmes largely got her money from private investors who didn’t look at her books rather than venture capitalists who would demand a full accounting. There are certainly stories to tell about the toxic culture of Silicon Valley and how it facilitates fraud, but The Inventor never seems like the best vehicle for it.
Instead, The Inventor is at its best when it looks at how Holmes conned respectable figures who bought into her narrative rather than taking a hard look at the data. The cautionary tale at the heart of the movie isn’t about self-delusion in service of noble ambitions, but how smart people can be hoodwinked by those noble ambitions. No one wanted to look too closely at Theranos because Theranos was aiming to do something good.
It would be nice to think that victims of con artists are simply greedy. But as The Inventor shows, it’s just as easy to be conned by someone pushing good intentions. And perhaps that’s a darker con because rather than preying on our avarice, it preys on our conscience.
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