Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder and CEO of Theranos, believed in the power of storytelling. A large part of her pitch to investors, journalists, and her own employees was presenting a narrative of herself as the compassionate, visionary genius who was going to transform the world with her blood testing technology. Dressed in her signature black turtleneck, one of the many affectations she swiped from her hero Steve Jobs, she moved across TED Talk stages, manicured Silicon Valley lawns, and sleek corporate boardrooms with unwavering confidence. She wasn't just selling a piece of equipment. The entrepreneur, who dropped out of Stanford to found her company at 19, was selling a persona.
It's not hard to see why Alex Gibney, the wildly prolific filmmaker behind Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and countless other ripped-from-the-headlines documentaries, would fall for her story. Gibney's new film about Holmes and her company, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, premiered at Sundance and airs tonight on HBO, where it will lure countless more curious viewers into Holmes's web of lies. Though the filmmaker -- and, presumably, the audience -- knows that Holmes's story ends in financial ruin and public embarrassment, the movie still attempts to sell you on the promise of Holmes, who is often shown in interview footage staring without blinking into the camera. She's the star.
Gibney's documentary follows her meteoric rise and subsequent downfall with clinical precision and an understated sense of mischief. Though Holmes did not sit for an interview with Gibney, he has footage of her answering questions under the watchful eye of Errol Morris, the documentary filmmaker who also films commercials and shot the Theranos marketing campaign. Early on in the film, she declares, "I don't have many secrets." The rest of the movie basically sets out to explore that lie by interviewing ex-Theranos employees, academics, and writers about the layers of deception created by the company that was once valued at $10 billion, and is now completely out of business. (A recent story in Vanity Fair, which featured a dog named Balto pooping in the boardroom, detailed the firm's final days.)