2 new documentaries pinpoint the uniquely troubling grift of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos

Elizabeth Holmes speaking at at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in October 2015, at the height of her fame.

Holmes’s lies didn’t just cost investors. They trashed the hope of a medical breakthrough.

Modern grifters and con artists manifest a certain vampiric quality. The hipster grifter, fraudulent socialite Anna Delvey, the fake Saudi prince, Fyre Festival (and maybe, if you squint, even college admissions fraud) — they all have one thing in common. There’s a sexy, alluring cast to the con that makes the feeding off the (metaphorical) blood of the conned even more seductive to those of us sitting on the outside, munching popcorn as our eyes widen.

So perhaps what makes the story of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes so compulsively interesting is that it’s the rare double grift, subtext and text: Holmes, who promised that technology her company had supposedly developed would change the world of medical testing forever, fed the con through sucking the metaphorical blood of wealthy people’s bank accounts and through, well, actual blood. Even the poster for Alex Gibney’s upcoming HBO documentary about the fallen entrepreneur, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, boasts some ominously vampiric undertones.

Theranos turned heads with its signature invention — a blood testing machine about the size of a home breadmaker named the Edison, after Thomas and (perhaps in a stroke of dramatic irony) the many failures he endured en route to success. The Edison would have, by all accounts, radically shifted how we approached health care. The vials and vials of blood required to run medical tests would be reduced to just a “nanotainer” of blood, drawn from a prick on a fingertip. The nanotainer would be deposited into an Edison, and thorough analysis could be run inexpensively, quickly, and seamlessly. All at your local Walgreen’s.

Clinton Global Initiative 2015 Annual Meeting - Day 4JP Yim/Getty Images
Holmes with Bill Clinton in September 2015.

The trouble, we now know, is that Theranos never developed the technology. Its own engineers and scientists admit that the machines were hopelessly ridden with errors and problems, but concerns about their shortcomings were met with derision from the company’s upper management. Theranos, and especially Holmes, resorted to all kinds of smoke and mirrors and subterfuge to create the illusion that it was working. But the only thing that was actually working was the con. For a while.

The story of the company’s downfall has been covered in detail since 2015, when news broke in the Wall Street Journal that all was not as it seemed at Theranos or with Holmes. Not only was the accuracy of the company’s tests questioned but Silicon Valley’s golden girl, who’d been feted by the wealthy and powerful and become an instant role model for women entrepreneurs, was being pushed off the very high pedestal on which people had been desperate to place her.

In 2015, then-31-year-old Holmes was dubbed the youngest female self-made billionaire by Forbes; two years later, the magazine had downgraded its estimate of her net worth from $4.5 billion to zero.

It was a wild enough story when it first broke. It got wilder as more details were uncovered, including the fact that Holmes had a long relationship with key investor and Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani that the two never disclosed to investors, or that among those investors were Betsy DeVos, Rupert Murdoch, and the Waltons, of Walmart. And more than three years later, small, weird details keep emerging. Amid all of the more stereotypically white-collar offenses reported in a recent Vanity Fair article about the scandal came the revelation that as Theranos neared its end, Holmes adopted a Siberian husky, named it Balto, and let it roam freely through the office, where it defecated in the corners.

The collapse of Theranos has become a magnet for filmmakers and storytellers

With a story this juicy, multiple pop culture retellings were inevitable. Adam McKay (of Vice and The Big Short) is directing a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes, with a screenplay by Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water). The project was a hot item, with bids from major Hollywood players like Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Amazon Studios in the mix before Legendary Pictures picked up the rights for a hefty $3 million.

McKay’s movie will be based on the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in Silicon Valley, by the Pulitzer-winning journalist who originally broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, John Carreyrou. (Carreyrou’s book was still in the proposal stage when the movie was sold; the book was released in May 2018.)

Carreyrou’s name was so odious at Theranos while he was conducting his investigative reporting that Balwani reportedly led the staff in a rousing round of “Fuck you, Carreyrou!” soon after the journalist’s story was published. But it knocked down the house of cards and sparked a flood of interest, as well, eventually, as indictments for Holmes and Balwani.

Court Hearing Held For Theranos Founder And Former President On Fraud ChargesJustin Sullivan/Getty Images
Elizabeth Holmes and her attorney arrive at the federal court house on January 14, 2019.

A story this fascinating can bear a lot of documentary-style retellings — not least because Holmes’s famously, uncannily, and apparently fake deep voice is so unnerving to actually hear. At the end of February, ABC Radio and ABC News Nightline concluded The Dropout, a seven-part investigative podcast about Holmes and the case. (Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start Theranos.) The series, from ABC senior business, technology, and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, combines interviews with key players and whistleblowers with audio of Holmes, in interviews and talks given at the height of her influence and from her depositions.

ABC News and 20/20 will also air a two-hour documentary, also called The Dropout, on Friday, March 15, presumably covering much of the same ground as the podcast but with the added benefit of visuals, particularly for the deposition tapes, in which Holmes looks markedly less pulled-together than she had in earlier public appearances.

And just a few days later, on Monday, March 18, a film from documentarian Alex Gibney (Going Clear, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the World) will air on HBO and start streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, also covers essentially the same ground as The Dropout, revisiting some of the same footage and interviewing some of the same Theranos ex-employees and whistleblowers.

The Inventor seems particularly aware of how bloody the story is

Gibney’s film in particular seems fascinated with the vampiric parts of the story. As Emily Yoshida noted in her Vulture review, The Inventor fixates on Holmes’s face, which appears in extreme close-ups not just in the movie but as a key part of its marketing. She is very pale, clad in her signature black turtleneck. The movie posters are even mostly rendered in grayscale, making her skin truly white against the blackness, red lips turned to a dark gray. Only two elements parts are rendered in color: Holmes’s icy blue eyes, described as unblinking in the documentary, and the nanotainer of red, red blood she holds between two fingers.

Elizabeth Holmes in the poster for Alex Gibney’s new film The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which airs on HBO on March 18.HBO
Elizabeth Holmes in the poster for Alex Gibney’s new film The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which airs on HBO on March 18.

The film also plays up the bloodletting aspects of the story, with recreated footage of vials, tubes, needles, and lab detritus appearing throughout. Blood is the visual and narrative theme — the giving of it, the taking of it, the use of it to prop up a hollow fraud.

It’s not explicit, of course; nobody involved in Theranos was a literal vampire. But the subtle visual bloodletting motif makes The Inventor the best encapsulation, thus far, of what’s uniquely troubling about the tale of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.

Grifters are a dime a dozen, and Silicon Valley hubris designed to draft off the wealthy is hardly news. (Remember Juicero?) But I found listening to The Dropout and watching The Inventor surprisingly frustrating, and it took me a long time to pinpoint why. I think it’s because it’s difficult to outright condemn her story, or write off the whole Theranos enterprise as purely a con. If the company’s technology had worked, after all, it genuinely would have been a miracle, a literal lifesaver.

The story lacks some of the train wreck appeal of other grifter stories. As a vampire story, it’s not camp or comedy; it’s just horror. Some of the worst was averted once the story was uncovered; most of the people who lost out were wealthy investors, not people with cancer and terminal illnesses. But Holmes’s lies sucked dry more than those who believed in her. They trashed some hope that very sick people might someday face a better future. And that may be what’s most unforgivable.

The Dropout premieres on March 15 at 9 pm Eastern on ABC. The Inventor premieres on March 18 at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.

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