Dossier

Loving the Lie: Elizabeth Holmes, Thomas Edison, and Alex Gibney


S. Topiary Landberg

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019), about the infamous biotech company Theranos and its enigmatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is the latest documentary from Alex Gibney. The Theranos/Holmes story is a perfect vehicle for Gibney, a writer-director who specializes in essayistic films that detail the complex nexus of dishonesty, ruthlessness, hubris, and painful reckonings. His filmography is filled with documentaries that fastidiously recount the dark underbelly of outrageous acts by rich and powerful people who eventually get their comeuppance—such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), The Armstrong Lie (2013), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015). And while this most recent film follows Gibney’s tried-and-true formula for investigating well-known scandals ripped from recent headlines, The Inventor is unique in his oeuvre in one essential way: its central character is a woman.

In Gibney’s film about a central female character, he both foregrounds the role that gender plays in this multi-billion-dollar fraud and at the same time decenters female perspectives. Instead of trying to understand Holmes’s motivations and provide insight into her experience, The Inventor focuses on the question of how so many powerful and experienced men could have been seduced by Holmes’s vision and fallen prey to her allegedly innocent wiles. In his telling, Gibney, as the film’s narrator and director, reinforces an ancient sexist trope while creating the illusion that his film transcends misogyny.

The Holmes/Theranos story is a subject well timed for its 2019 release. As a fantasy for the Trump era, The Inventor offers viewers a savory tale of outrageous, bald-faced deceit in which lies are finally exposed and its victims cathartically released from their grip. Of course, in this post-#MeToo era in which the failed presidential campaign of Hilary Clinton is still an open wound for many, The Inventor offers HBO an opportunity to present the story of another seemingly feminist heroine whose outsized ambition seemed to catapult her to success until a painful and shocking reckoning brought her down.

In the film, Elizabeth Holmes is being heralded as Silicon Valley’s youngest female CEO, celebrated as embodying a welcome answer to the tech industry’s problem of intractable sexism. Holmes cultivates an image of herself as a young genius entrepreneur, exceptional in the tech world not only for her gender but also for her avowedly humanitarian motives. Yet when she is eventually revealed to be incapable of telling the truth, the film shifts to portray Holmes as a convenient cypher for Silicon Valley malefaction and an emblem of the lack of ethics in the tech industry generally. The Inventor represents Holmes’s success as a condition of her exceptionalism: her being a female visionary entrepreneur is an outsized aspect of her appeal and the reason she is able to garner so much positive attention and support. Yet her fall is portrayed as just one more spectacular implosion resulting from everyday business-as-usual recklessness. Roger Parloff of Fortune and Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, both prominent male journalists who wrote articles that directly contributed to her ability to raise millions of dollars of venture capital for Theranos, admit to Gibney in on-camera interviews that they were seduced by Holmes and her story at least in part because she was a woman and her gender made for a great story.

Gibney makes the point that many, including a number of Theranos employees, were intoxicated by the idea that Silicon Valley’s new wunderkind was finally female. The film makes the point that this response was true for both men and women, but was especially poignant for one of the few women to be interviewed in the film. Former Theranos employee Erika Cheung tells Gibney that, when first hired by the company, she enthusiastically regarded Holmes as a female role model. Yet one of the only other women interviewed in the film, Phyllis Gardner, is the only person who seemed to resist the perception of Holmes as a great genius. As her freshman college professor, Holmes aroused skepticism in Gardner ‘from the very beginning. In the film, Gardner comes across as a bitter figure who points out that Holmes’s biggest blind believers were all older, powerful, and successful men who should have known better. As if to defend their honors, Gibney spends the majority of his film attempting to answer the question of how and why they fell prey to the charms that this one Cassandra resisted.

Gibney’s decentering of female perspectives, as reflected in The Inventor’s promotional materials. Courtesy of HBO.

Holmes’s enablers—all older men, including another former Stanford professor and two former US secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, who all sat on Theranos’s board and were financial investors—are portrayed as victims of the young woman’s deception. They are presented as men who, in believing in Holmes’s vision for making the world a better place, ended by losing a lot of their own money as enablers of a massive fraud. Similarly, the journalists who first wrote “her story” and promoted Holmes’s vision are presented as sympathetic fellow travelers by Gibney and accorded empathetic space in which to discuss their own experience of beguilement and regret.

A fellow journalist-storyteller, Gibney positions himself as narrator-filmmaker in alignment with these other coauthors of “her story,” fascinated by the spectacular nature and grand scale of the fraud and tragedy. Gibney is aware enough to recognize himself as one of the storytellers who benefit from exploiting Holmes’s fantastic and confounding duplicity. Yet in foregrounding his own ethical position in relation to the story’s prurient appeal, Gibney attempts to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to show that he is a serious journalist in search of truth about a serious subject, while capitalizing on a sensational story with scandalous appeal. In a savvy attempt to avoid glorifying Holmes’s exceptional criminality, Gibney emphasizes the more abstract topic of how storytelling itself can function as a tool to deceive and bewitch.

Gibney’s documentary is not the only vehicle for the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos story. Slated to become a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, this material has also been mined by a number of recent high-profile nonfiction works, beginning with John Carreyrou’s best-selling book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018) and followed by the ABC News/ABC Radio podcast series The Dropout (2019). Both the book and the podcast feature the same basic plot points and many of the same informants as The Inventor. What is unique about Gibney’s treatment, though, is the way he foregrounds the entanglements between technological innovation and storytelling.

Unlike the book and podcast, Gibney’s film centers on a comparison between Holmes and the greatest American inventor of all time, Thomas Alva Edison. In choosing Edison as the film’s fulcrum, Gibney draws a Venn diagram between technology, deception, and filmmaking. Using visually alluring animations that blend archival Edison film footage with contemporary details of Holmes’s story, Gibney frames the history of the moving image as both a technological innovation and a technique for manifesting inventions of the imagination. As the inventor of the electric light bulb, the phonograph, and commercial filmmaking—and also of his own image as “the Wizard of Menlo Park”—Edison was America’s first celebrity businessman. Gibney argues that the two secrets to Edison’s success were “knowing how to tell a good story” and “casting himself as the main character.” Underlining the connection between Edison and Holmes, Gibney exclaims that “it was Edison who originated the Silicon Valley art of ‘fake it till you make it.’”

Thomas Alva Edison, with his patents. Courtesy of HBO.

It is important to note that Gibney did not invent this comparison between Edison and Holmes: she herself invited the comparison by naming her company’s miniature laboratory-in-a-box “The Edison.” But Gibney meaningfully mines the parallels between these two inventor-fabricators by describing how Edison often promised far more than he could deliver, faked inventions that weren’t quite working, and even gifted journalists with stock in his company in exchange for favorable articles. This compelling comparison serves to suggest that, far from being exceptional, Holmes’s outsized confidence and reliance on magical thinking might be viewed as simply following the tried-and-true methods pioneered by Edison and employed by many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Gibney supports this idea by including an interview with the behavioral economist Dan Ariely, an expert on dishonesty. Ariely explains in the interview that there is a lot of lying in Silicon Valley even though people in the industry will say that the technology doesn’t lie: “There is this idea in Silicon Valley that you should put the goal post very far away, such that you don’t know if you can get to it.” Ariely suggests that what might appear to others as dishonesty was, for Holmes, simply doing what everyone else in Silicon Valley was doing: buying time and holding tenaciously to her vision. In this way, Ariely serves as a kind of apologist for the kind of outsized ambition that proved to be Holmes’s downfall, arguing: “There are lots of people who are overconfident, and from time to time we get penicillin.”

While Gibney seems to want to indict Holmes for her deceitful business practices, his film remains agnostic on the question of Holmes’s true motivations and whether her deceptive practices may have been caused by delusion or even mental illness. During the course of The Inventor, Holmes is increasingly portrayed as a puzzling and elusive figure. While all of the film’s interview subjects speak about their experiences with the benefit of hindsight, Holmes’s own retrospective point of view is missing. As the film makes its way through the main highlights of the Theranos story, it leans on archival clips of Holmes giving a TED talk and being complimented in numerous televised appearances, including one in which Bill Clinton introduces her admiringly as America’s next great hope. Yet, the many views of Holmes are always portrayed through someone else’s lens. Holmes never appears for Gibney, so his film can at best only exploit her story but never fully represent her. Some of the most compelling footage of Holmes is sourced from a television commercial for Theranos directed by the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris.

As one of the progenitors of contemporary documentary stylistics, Morris is often credited with dissolving previously held aesthetic distinctions between documentary and narrative fiction filmmaking. It is not apocryphal to claim that Errol Morris’s films have had an outsized influence on mainstream documentary aesthetics. As Paul Arthur and other scholars have remarked, Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) heralded a shift in the politics of documentary that rejected earlier truth claims and embraced the idea that there is no stable or authoritative truth.1

Given Morris’s career-long interest in ethically dubious figures, it is not surprising that Elizabeth Holmes would have held a fascination for him. In an interview with the New Yorker, Morris insisted that he does not feel guilt or regret for having directed the Theranos ad campaign, asserting that he remains fascinated by Holmes despite the scandal.2 He reports that although Gibney asked him to participate in The Inventor, he repeatedly refused these requests, explaining that, although he has not seen the film, he takes issue with the ways that the stories being told about Holmes and Theranos all follow a predictable pattern of demonization.3 Morris differentiates his own interest in Holmes, stating that he is more compelled by the question of whether she sees herself as a fraud.4

The relationship between these two high-profile, Academy Award–winning documentary filmmakers, Alex Gibney and Errol Morris, is interesting. Gibney is obviously influenced by Errol Morris’s work, particularly by Morris’s aesthetic and stylistic approaches that blur boundaries between documentary and fiction and embrace reenactment, prominent musical scores, and such essayistic devices as the audible presence of the filmmaker participating with their interview subjects. Morris draws a distinction between his own fascination with acts of moral turpitude and Gibney’s, but Gibney seems to believe that his own brand of documentary provides authoritative analysis of scandal that leaves its audience both entertained and informed. Gibney’s approach does not seemingly require Holmes’s participation. Instead, Gibney is content to ask others what they think her motivations might be and to encourage them to muse on whether she is a pathological liar. Insight into Holmes is mainly provided by the journalists and the economist who analyze her actions, pontificate about her state of mind, and assess whether she was willfully lying or simply mentally ill. Holmes’s true character and motivations remain enigmatic, a black hole at the center of the film capable of absorbing the many speculations of Gibney’s interviewees while retaining a spirit of titillating mystery.

In the thirty years since The Thin Blue Line and many other “postmodern” documentaries first began breaking down previously held boundaries between fiction and documentary, the pressures on truth and objectivity have only gotten stronger. As Erika Balsom writes: “We live in an age of ‘alternative facts,’ in which the intermingling of reality and fiction, so prized in a certain kind of documentary practice since the 1990s, appears odiously all around us.”5 Balsom further argues that the popularity of essay films “with their meditative, questioning voice-overs” is part of a current orthodoxy that maintains that reality is best accessed through artifice while confirming “a smug and safe position for maker and viewer alike, guarding both against being caught out as that most sorry of characters: the naïve credulist.”6 Linda Williams once viewed documentary’s turn toward reflexivity, artifice, and performativity as a response to technological change and a resistance to cynicism.7 Balsom, however, suggests that today these same strategies of artistic mediation that have become commonplace staples of documentary merely serve to reproduce and reinforce epistemological anxieties concerning an increasing indiscernibility between fact and fiction.8

In attempting to expose the “truth” about this story of deception, Gibney appears to want to provide an authoritative truth about Elizabeth Holmes while still acknowledging his inability to provide any definitive answers. This performative failure to access Holmes’s motivations is not the guarantee of humility and authenticity that Gibney wants it to be. Rather, it indicates Gibney’s failure to resist his masculinist framework while supporting his own unflappable desire to render judgment with smug satisfaction. While the story of Theranos has the potential to act as a truth serum to ward off magical fantasies about quick technological fixes for urgent and large-scale problems, from the pandemic to climate change, The Inventor is cynical about the power of story even as it capitalizes on a story too good to resist.

Notes

1. Paul Arthur, “Jargons of Authenticity (Three American Moments),” in Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov (New York: Routledge, 1993), 127. 2. Daniel A. Gross, “‘The World Is, of Course, Insane’: A Conversation with Errol Morris,” New Yorker, October 28, 2019, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/the-world-is-of-course-insane-errol-morris-interview. 3. Gross, “‘The World Is, of Course, Insane,’” 2019. 4. Gross, “‘The World Is, of Course, Insane,’” 2019. 5. Erika Balsom, “The Reality-Based Community,” e-flux 83 (June 2017), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/142332/the-reality-based-community/. 6. Balsom, “The Reality-Based Community.” 7. Linda Williams, “Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary,” Film Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Spring 1993): 9–21. 8. Balsom, “The Reality-Based Community.”

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