ALEX GIBNEY’S FILM, THE INVENTOR, FLESHES OUT THE STORY, BUT DOES NOT ADVANCE IT MUCH. As the title advertises, it’s focused more on Holmes herself than on the system she exploited. This isn’t surprising: film is a visual, personal, and emotional medium, and a good documentary needs strong characters, even if they’re anti-heroes like Holmes. But the film sinks at times into voyeurism, as if demonstrating Holmes’s strange magnetism were the same as explaining why so many people fell victim to it for so long.
Much of the key footage in Gibney’s film was actually shot by rival documentarian Errol Morris. Theranos’s ad agency, Chiat\Day, hired Morris—famous for films like The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War and for his ad campaigns for Apple and other big companies—to make commercials and promotional videos for the startup. So, while Gibney’s narration unfolds, we see a white-coated Holmes striding authoritatively around Theranos’s glass-walled headquarters and speaking earnestly (and, we know now, untruthfully) to the camera about the life-saving potential of the company’s faster, cheaper diagnostics.
Morris was working to build up the Theranos myth and now Gibney is using the same footage to dismantle it. But once you grasp that irony—and get over the weirdness of the fact that one of our greatest living documentarians unwittingly became the main contributor to Gibney’s film—you realize that it’s still just surfaces, images, reflections. It’s odd that a nonfiction film about a crafty illusionist should be this obsessed with appearances. No matter how long we gaze into Holmes’s eyes, we aren’t going to find the source of the darkness in her soul.
There is some clever visual storytelling in the film, such as the CGI tour of the insides of a Theranos machine, as well as lots of aerial drone footage of idyllic Palo Alto. We get to meet many of the people who helped Carreyrou crack the story open, including Tyler Shultz. Gibney recruits smart and entertaining expert witnesses, including behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who explains why stories are more powerful than data and why it’s easier to cheat when you’re convinced it’s for a good cause. And there’s a revealing sequence where Holmes is on stage at Theranos, mic in hand, boasting to a roomful of employees about meeting the president of Brazil. The camera swings to the seated workers, who were probably meant to look worshipful; instead they’re glancing around like nervous hostages planning their escape.
We come away from the movie even more convinced that Holmes is some kind of sociopath. But we don’t learn anything new about why the system around her was so ripe for manipulation or how the scheme might have been foiled sooner. Reading Carreyrou’s book leaves you feeling righteously angry; Gibney’s film creeps you out.