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‘The Inventor’: a study of delusion


If you've kept abreast of the news, and that's not a given these days, you may be familiar with the name Elizabeth Holmes. Or Theranos. Or the lawsuits that involve both. And both are the focus of the HBO documentary "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio.

Following is my review:

The line between dream and delusion isn’t always clear. When we’re children, we can be forgiven for wanting to be, say, an astronaut – even if we display no discernible aptitude for science. Even if we have a clear fear of heights. 

But matters become a bit more complicated when we’re older. Sure, adopting a “I have a dream” kind of attitude can help propel you through untold difficulties, whether they involve passing a U.S. citizenship naturalization exam – how many amendments does the Constitution have, anyway? – or founding a company whose aim is to change the future.

Yet what happens when we lose sight of, or simply ignore, what’s real from what’s not?

Elizabeth Holmes knows all about the difficulties associated with trying to change the future. Theranos, the company the Stanford University dropout founded in 2003 at the age of 19, had as its stated purpose the intent of changing medical care, of taking the power out of practitioners’ hands and putting them – at an affordable price – in the grip of everyday people. “Our company,” Holmes proclaimed, “is set up to define a new industry.”

The key to Holmes’ goal was a device she called the Edison, a machine no bigger than a desktop printer that, she said, could run more than 200 tests from a few drops of blood gathered from a slight finger prick. She named it after the noted inventor Thomas Edison who claimed never to have failed in his attempts at refining some potential idea. Said Edison, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’twork.”

Of her Edison, Holmes in 2015 said, “(W)e assumed we’d have to fail 10,000 times to get it to work the ten-thousandth-and-first. And we did.”

Only they didn’t. As the HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” demonstrates, Holmes – who by duping a number of older, powerful and often rich men, raised some $700 million in investment capital – lied about pretty much everything. The Edison didn’t work, not even close, requiring Theranos to use other, more traditional methods, to run the tests. And yet Holmes continued to claim that it did, threatening legal action against anyone – inside or outside the company – who contradicted her.

Writer-director Alex Gibney, a veteran documentarian known for exposing everything from scientology in his film “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” to corporate America in “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” takes us directly into Theranos’ ultra-modern Palo Alto headquarters, where the line between the tiled and the carpeted offices – separating the scientists from the marketers – symbolized the boundaries between reality and fantasy.

He interviews several former Theranos employees, a number of experts and journalists – both those who were duped by Holmes and one, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, who was not – and Gibney even uses Theranos’ own PR footage to tell Holmes’ story.

What lingers most, though, are the closeups of Holmes herself, her unblinking gaze staring back at us, as if even now, and despite all the evidence, she still can’t tell the difference between a bona-fide dream and the peril of self-delusion.

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