Crime Over Sundance: The Inventor – Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)

Welcome to Criminal Element's Crime Over Sundance series, where we provide coverage of Sundance 2019 and preview crime films set to make the biggest splash this year.

There are advantages to working for a privately held company, but there is also a downside. The lack of regular shareholder disclosures allows management to conduct business with less transparency, if they so choose. That was certainly the case for Elizabeth Holmes’ notorious start-up, Theranos.  Her powerful political connections helped create a perfect storm of deception. It was a scandalous debacle, but her intentions remain unclear throughout Alex Gibney’s true white-collar crime documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which premiered during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

It sounded too good to be true, because it was. Holmes had a game-changing idea that would take the fear out of blood work by replacing the painful needle jabs to the vein with a quick and easy thumb-prick. The resulting tiny vial of blood would then be processed through Theranos’s “Edison” boxes that would supposedly test for everything under the sun.

The problem is none of it worked, but Holmes would not let such details derail her vision. She managed to sell Walgreens on a test program in Arizona, but the phlebotomists hired by Theranos quickly reverted to tapping veins for large samples to be secretly processed by competitive diagnostic machines. Even more problematically, the samples that were analyzed through Edison machines constantly yielded inaccurate results. Ten billion dollars later, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal started asking questions.

There is no question the Darth Vader figure in The Inventor is David Boies, the high-powered attorney probably best known for representing the Gore Campaign during the Florida recount. However, judging from Gibney’s film, his real specialty is intimidating whistle-blowers, like former Secretary of State George Shultz’s grandson. Both Boies and Sec. Schultz were Theranos board members—small world, isn’t it?

Gibney is a hit-or-miss documentarian, but The Inventor is one of his best films, ranking alongside the meticulously sourced Going Clear and the rousing Finding Fela. Sometimes he plays favorites, but not here. He leaves no doubt Holmes exploited her ties to the Clintons and Obamas to cover-up the failure of the Edison project. The only question is whether she really thought they could eventually make it work or if it was a complete scam right from the start. Was she conning herself, as well as her investors?

The Inventor has a lot to say about human behavior and our collective willingness to believe.

The Inventor has a lot to say about human behavior and our collective willingness to believe. It is also a heck of a crime story, loaded with irony and deceit. Holmes emerges as a maddeningly and intriguingly mysterious figure, but not someone you would ever want to do business with. Gibney definitely tells a cautionary tale, but the political implications cut both ways. Arguably, this is about as entertaining as muckraking gets. Highly recommended for anyone fascinating by financial scams, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley screens as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


*images courtesy of The Inventor – Out For Blood In Silicon Valley / HBO / Sundance