Deception and self deception. The meteoric rise and catastrophic fall of a billion dollar corporation. The dangers of entrepreneurship and the cult of personality. The manipulative power of storytelling.
All of these elements form part of the complicated story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos - the health technology company that she created aged just 19 years old. In 2015, Theranos was worth an estimated $9 billion. Just one year later, the company would be worthless, with Holmes facing accusations of serious fraud.
The tide had just started to turn when the chief executive of HBO, Richard Plepler, and the then editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, approached documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney with an idea to make a film about Holmes.
Gibney was fascinated by what he saw as an intriguing tale about the psychology of fraud. His subsequent documentary about Theranos - The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley - explores two key themes familiar in his work - deception and the abuse of power.
At the start, Holmes wanted to disrupt and then revolutionise healthcare by giving people quick, easy and affordable access to their medical information. Her idea was to take a small amount of blood via a simple finger prick (bye bye big bad needles) and run a vast amount of tests on that tiny sample. The blood would then be processed in a small machine called the Edison.
Holmes told investors, journalists - and anyone who would listen - that, with this new technology, Theranos would change the world. Her ultimate dream was for a future where no one would have to say goodbye to a loved one too soon.
If all this seems too good to be true, well that is because it was...
Elizabeth Holmes did not deceive everyone.
Just ask Phyllis Gardner, professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. She’ll tell you what she told Holmes - the concept behind Theranos and the Edison machine would never, could never work.
However, as Gibney’s compelling documentary explains, Holmes only ever heard what she wanted to hear. So she ignored Gardner’s advice and moved on until she found someone else at Stanford to support her idea.
That someone was Channing Robertson. Robertson taught Holmes while she was at Stanford and was so taken by her and her plans that he left his tenured position at the university and became an advisor at Theranos.
Robertson’s experience would mirror that of many other rich and powerful advisors, consultants and investors - including former US Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former US Secretary of Defense William Perry, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and US General James Mattis.
Charmed by Holmes and perhaps fearful of missing out on a significant, potentially lucrative investment, they became part of the Theranos story - lending the company an air of credibility and respectability that, with the benefit of hindsight, it did not deserve.
Meanwhile, Holmes mingled with former and current US presidents and cultivated her growing Steve Jobs-esque stature in the media (The Inventor shows iconic documentary director, Errol Morris, filming publicity footage for Holmes… just as he did for Apple).
Holmes also participated in many television and magazine interviews - including a Fortune magazine profile by journalist Roger Parloff that served to propel her, Icarus-style, ever skyward.
Gibney questions why so many would be so easily deceived. There was certainly no data or evidence to prove that Holmes was anywhere close to delivering her dream. People just desperately wanted to believe her. The healthcare industry was ripe for disruption and it was high time for a female silicon valley entrepreneur to rise to the fore.
The Inventor explores the psychology of deception with behavioural economist, Dan Ariely. Ariely explains that data doesn’t sit in our minds as much as stories. Emotions, not science-based facts, make us do things. Holmes, as we see from a montage of presentations, interviews and Ted Talks, was a born storyteller.
Gibney wanted Holmes to tell her own story in his documentary. However, she refused to participate. By then, of course, she must have known that the future was not looking good for herself or Theranos.
Initially, the director also struggled to get anyone else to talk on camera about their experiences. Many were too frightened of being sued. (Holmes had hired formidable lawyer, David Boies, to dissuade anyone from spilling the tea on Theranos.)
As a result, Gibney interviewed Ariely at length, examined the fake it until you make it culture of Silicon Valley and explored Holmes' connection with other entrepreneurs. He makes much of the link with Thomas Edison.
While this comparison is interesting, it also feels a little over done. In addition, some of the information conveyed by Ariely feels like unnecessary filler.
I would have preferred more of a focus on how damaging Holmes’ behaviour has been for women entrepreneurs, how much her gender played a role in what happened and why she decided to present herself in the way she did: all black roll neck tops, unblinking blue eyes and (artificially?) low voice.
I would also have liked more of a sense of Elizabeth Holmes’ charisma. While we hear about her powers of persuasion from Gibney’s talking heads - most notably from whistleblower Tyler (grandson of George) Shultz - all we see is an intense, rather off putting woman.
One reason for the absence of this detail in a documentary that has a hefty almost two hour running time, is that, as he was editing The Inventor, Gibney and his team were given a gold mine of footage from inside Theranos.
The footage - given by an anonymous source - shows Elizabeth being interviewed, conducting “inspirational” company talks, hosting Theranos events and walking - often (such was her growing paranoia) accompanied by bodyguards - around the Theranos office.
Likely filmed for marketing purposes, this footage reveals little of what was going on inside the mind of Elizabeth Holmes. This is corporate Holmes - the side that she wanted the public to see and the story that she wanted to tell.
Ironically, it was to be another type of storyteller that eventually took down Theranos and exposed Elizabeth Holmes and the company’s president, Sunny Balwani. This storyteller was an investigative journalist from The Washington Post called John Carreyrou
Carreyrou spotted something strange in an article by Ken Auletta for The New Yorker magazine. When asking how the Edison machines actually worked, Auletta described Holmes’ response as being “comically vague”.
Was there something fishy in the lack of data and detail about Theranos' technology? Was something off about the company's litigious sense of secrecy? You bet there was.
The Inventor features interviews with Carreyrou (who has published a book about the scandal called Bad Blood), Auletta and Fortune magazine’s Parloff. In so doing, Gibney’s documentary explores the journalistic process of uncovering fact from fiction.
Auletta shares recordings of his interviews with Holmes that prove how ready she was to lie (“and I believed it!” he exclaims). Meanwhile, Parloff seems genuinely haunted by the fact that he was so thoroughly deceived.
The nail in Theranos’ coffin was the company’s ill-judged deal with US pharmacy store chain, Walgreens. The details of this deal and its frankly appalling aftermath have to be seen to be believed.
While Steve Jobs promoted consumer products, Holmes was operating in the world of healthcare. When the lives of real patients began to be put at risk, Theranos insiders such as Tyler Schultz and lab technician, Erika Cheung, decided to speak out - no matter the personal cost.
In The Inventor, Schultz talks about the two sides of Theranos - the carpeted world and the tiled world of the labs. In the carpeted world, Holmes was a Silicon Valley goddess to be worshipped. In the tiled world nothing worked, everything was a lie and Theranos was a sinking ship.
Just when Holmes understood this is unclear. You get the sense that she is a fantasist rather than a scam artist and that she may still believe that Theranos could have revolutionised the healthcare industry - if only she had been given more time.
Professor Gardner gives us the best insight of the documentary as to why such a bright, privileged and charismatic woman as Elizabeth Holmes failed in such a catastrophic way. Two insights in fact. One, she was not willing to listen and, two, she refused to own up to and learn from her mistakes.
As to whether she will be made to pay for these mistakes, we will soon see. Holmes is due to stand trial in July accused of wire fraud. If found guilty, she could face a 20 year jail term.