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This article was published 23/3/2019 (210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alex Gibney is a quiet documentarian. Forgoing pumped-up rhetoric and spectacular stunts, he tends to meticulously marshal his evidence and arguments.
Still, in its own low-key way, his latest investigative doc is deeply, weirdly, can’t-look-away compelling. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (now available on HBO and Crave) breaks down the Theranos scandal, in which Elizabeth Holmes, who claimed to have developed a technology that would make blood tests fast, easy, accessible and affordable, was revealed as a US$9-billion fraudster.
So, how does this soberly set-up doc become so strangely lurid? Why does the word "eerie" keep cropping up in reviews and responses? What about all those "Ten Most Bizarre Things in the Elizabeth Holmes Documentary" lists?
A lot of it comes down to Holmes’ eyes. She has the most disturbing documentary stare since Robert Durst’s shark-like look in The Jinx.
As a young female biotech CEO, Holmes’s self-presentation is bound to be deliberate, but it goes beyond that. Her way of moving through the world is disconcerting, the way robots are disconcerting, for being kind of human and kind of not.
This uncanniness is distilled into her unsettling blue gaze, which seems serene but turns a little nutty if you hold it long enough — and Gibney does. Not only does Holmes have unusually large and round eyes, she’s practically a non-blinker.
Then there’s her baritone voice, which has launched dozens of "what the hell is up with Elizabeth Holmes’ voice?" articles on the internet. With its lush, dark timbre, her speech is clearly meant to reassure, but it ends up sounding artificial, even a little spooky.
Holmes’ crafted persona made her a magnet for magazine covers and TV profiles.
And the charismatic young inventor out to "disrupt" conventional medicine became, unfortunately, only more fascinating when she was revealed to be a complete fake.
Holmes not only misled employees and investors. She cheated ordinary people by selling them inaccurate medical information. Holmes’s idealism — and one of the most intriguing aspects of the doc is that Gibney suggests this idealism was real, at least at the beginning — somehow slid insidiously into reckless disregard for people’s lives.
Gibney focuses on Holmes as a specific cautionary case. But he’s also taking a larger look at grifters. The Inventor is a mesmerizing look at why people lie, and, just as crucially, why so many people believe them. It’s a subject Gibney has explored before, with films about Lance Armstrong and Scientology, and his look at this particular "prison of belief" is penetrating and often poignant.
Gibney parallels Holmes’ story with a look at Thomas Edison, the original "fake it till you make it" businessman-inventor, known for fudging results and bribing journalists when things weren’t working.
Like Edison, Holmes was good at generating buzz. She also had a knack for getting the wealthy and powerful onside, such as Theranos board member Henry Kissinger. As one journalist remarks, he wouldn’t necessarily trust Kissinger on medicine and science ("Or, you know, Cambodia"), but he thought the former U.S. secretary of state might have some insight into Holmes’s leadership.
Maybe Kissinger was unconsciously nostalgic for the Nixon administration. Holmes had a similar style of defensiveness, secrecy and us-and-them paranoia.
You can see why. Holmes was holding out the revolutionary promise that a minuscule vial of blood taken from a quick finger-prick could deliver more than 200 medical test results when placed inside a small black box. It’s impossible not to see this contraption — called, with killing irony, The Edison — as a metaphor. On the outside, the box seemed like the elegant, enigmatic promise of the future. Inside, it was a short-circuiting, malfunctioning mess of spattered blood and crushed glass.
Faced with something that, in retrospect, looks more like a cheap prop from a bad sci-fi movie than actual science, why did so many people get fooled?
Gibney brings in an expert in the social psychology of deception to explain. Data bores us, he tells us, but storytelling captivates us. Stories that offer hope and certainty get even more traction.
Holmes’ certainty was clearly seductive. But with the hindsight the documentary offers, it morphs into something very scary. It’s not just that Holmes lied to others. She seems to have lied to herself. One commentator talks about "the self-protective reconstruction of reality going on in her mind." That capacity for self-delusion might be the real secret of her grift.
Holmes’ undented belief in her mission is embodied in her odd, unblinking gaze. Our fascination with this eerie disconnect — this bright blue gap between truth and deception — is why we keep meeting that gaze. In The Inventor, it’s hard to look away.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.