Why Are We So Obsessed with Elizabeth Holmes? Alex Gibney Unpacks His New HBO Documentary The Inventor

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is a skilled dissector of scandal. The subjects of his films have included the likes of Enron, Scientology, Eliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong and Wikileaks. He was once dubbed a “biographer of bad men.” When asked how his latest subject fits into that oeuvre, Gibney jokes that he’s “branched out.” To what? “To women.”

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, set to debut on HBO on March 18, is Gibney’s take on Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who rose to spectacular prominence in Silicon Valley as she promised to revolutionize healthcare with her startup’s trailblazing blood tests — and then fell from grace with equal vigor when it turned out that those blood tests were deeply flawed and misrepresented. This revelation seeped out only after millions in investors’ money had already been spent and, crucially, after members of the public had already been exposed.

Holmes, whose estimated net worth went from $ 4.5 billion to zero after the fall, has been the subject of extensive reporting. There’s a book. There’s a podcast. A feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence is in the works. TIME spoke to Gibney about why we just can’t seem to get enough of Holmes, how her gender plays into the story and what to make of powerful people who continue to defend her.

How does Holmes fit in alongside subjects you’ve covered?

There’s a pattern. One part is the end justifies the means. Another is what that allows the human mind to do, in terms of being able to convince yourself to rationalize misdeeds in the service of a higher goal. Over time that’s corrupting. The police call it noble cause corruption: The bad cop can’t get the killer, so he plants some dope on him. That’s the through line. That’s what I see in Elizabeth that I’ve seen in other people, like [Wikileaks’] Julian Assange or Jeff Skilling at Enron.

One of the messages I got from the film was that what led her to do this — though in an extreme — is in all of us.

I agree with that. Otherwise we inhabit a world in which there are good people and there are bad people. And then to prevent the next Elizabeth Holmes, you just have to make sure that a bad person doesn’t ever become the head of a company, right? We’re all capable of doing bad things under certain circumstances. So what are those circumstances? And what is the psychological mechanism that allows us to go there? When we come across as a kind of charismatic, messianic figure, sometimes it’s part of a larger package that’s hiding more damaging stuff.

Why as a culture are we so obsessed with scammers, especially ones who seem to get their comeuppance?

It’s two sides of the same coin. Elizabeth is an extreme version of who we all are, right? I think there’s a part of us that likes to break the rules and likes to think we can put one over on people. So there’s part of us that is intrigued — or even admires — people who do it. But then we always want to see them punished, because we know it’s wrong. And also because we’re angry. Somebody like Elizabeth gets our dander up because we’re being lied to. She’s looking at us and saying ‘Support me because I am a woman in male-dominated Silicon Valley and I’m doing something great for the world.’ And we want to say, ‘Yeah, we’re behind you. 100%.’ And then to learn what she’s actually doing is putting patients’ lives at risk and not letting anybody know — well, then we should be angry, right?

There are so many emotions involved as onlookers. Embarrassment. A sort of jealousy. Schadenfreude.

We live in the jackpot society. Sunday, we’re all going to win the lottery, right? And the one great thing about Silicon Valley is you have a brilliant idea and the next thing you know, you’re a billionaire. Cha-ching! So yeah, we’re jealous. But then we see — oh, she didn’t really get there by dint of working hard. She got there by lying.

And what about that tech context? That industry where people become instant millionaires can feel exclusionary.

There’s a kind of feedback loop that justifies the enormous amount of money that the geniuses at the head of these companies deserve. Of course Zuckerberg should be worth billions because he’s a genius. Steve Jobs? Genius. The fact is we’re responsible for Mark Zuckerberg’s money. He’s taking our data and he’s monetizing it. That ecosystem rewards thinking about the ‘lone genius’ when it’s not really true.

You mentioned Holmes’ gender as a reason people wanted to see her succeed. How important is gender in this story?

It’s at the heart of the story in some ways. One of the reasons for making a parallel to [Thomas] Edison in the film was the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ mentality. Before Edison ultimately does invent the incandescent light bulb, he fakes demonstrations. The other is that he was kind of the first celebrity entrepreneur. You sell the Edison Company by selling Edison. Elizabeth is in that mold and one of the things she’s selling is this vision of her as the alluring but ascetic female entrepreneur in male-dominated Silicon Valley. That’s a vision we all want to embrace, and I think people were invested — and I use that term intentionally — because that was such an appealing idea.

When did Holmes really cross a red line? When the tests went live at Walgreens locations or before then?

Yes. I don’t think there’s a story in this if she doesn’t go live with the tests before they’re ready. Otherwise it’s just R&D. So she doesn’t get it right and investors lose some money, but nobody’s lives are put at risk. Up until that point, you could argue that she really was in the tradition of ‘fake it ’til you make it.’ Ultimately she goes down because she crosses an ethical line that’s just as strong for men as for women, which is you don’t put people’s lives at risk just for some cash, or for some glory.

Did you try to get Holmes to take part in the film?

One of the film’s producers met with her very early on for about five hours, but we were unsuccessful in persuading her to participate. She was very much probing for where we were. And she kept saying she would participate once the company was back on its feet — that there was a very promising next chapter coming. It never came.

How much can we analyze the morality at play without hearing explanations straight from her?

It’s a good question. Late in the film, we use a clip from an interview she did with Maria Shriver. I see it as a really important clue. What she says at the time is more or less ‘I was shocked’ [about there being issues with the blood tests]. She doesn’t say, ‘It’s terrible. I feel terrible because I am responsible.’ Not even close. She’s trying to convince us that really she didn’t know. Well, we know from everything we’ve seen up to that point that’s a lie.

What is that telling us on a deeper level about her?

On a deeper level it means that she’s not willing to admit to herself that there’s anything more important than her own success.

Though you didn’t interview her, there’s incredible footage of Holmes in the film, including videos of all-hands meetings at the company. Where did you get all the footage that you used?

Ironically, much of the footage we ended up getting we got because Theranos was filming themselves. Some of the materials were licensed, some of them were outtakes from other filmmakers who were going in to do portraits of her. But a lot of material we got, including the making of the ads, the long interviews with Elizabeth looking sort of doe-eyed, and those company meetings, that’s all Theranos footage.

How did you get Theranos to give you footage?

They didn’t give it to us. We found people who had been on the inside who had copies, who were willing to leak it to us.

What do you make of people like venture capitalist Tim Draper, who backed her and are still defending her?

He was quoted recently as saying ‘This attack and vicious rumor mill to try to take down Elizabeth Holmes has been a real setback for humanity.’ He’s obsessed with this idea that it’s unfair for us to take down the risk-takers. But that’s a kind of fetishism of the entrepreneur that suggests entrepreneurs exist outside of society, that we should coddle them even when they put people at risk. What kind of enabling is that? So screw Tim Draper. He’s just dead wrong.

What would you say is the moral of this story?

I always get reluctant to say there’s a single takeaway. To me, there’s a context in terms of the culture of Silicon Valley and some of the things we accept that maybe we shouldn’t. There’s a human psychological dimension that I think is really important, in terms of how to think about what people tell us, particularly people in power. The focus of the film is Elizabeth. She’s the haunting figure at the center who was able to fool us all, in part because she was able to fool herself, which enabled her to lie better. It’s something that we need to be able to recognize in people, so that the next time one of these things comes around, we don’t just go looking for corner-cutting or, at its worst, fraud, from people who seem to be malevolent from the outside. We know that it’s possible from people who seem to have the highest ideals.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Entertainment – TIME

ENTERTAINMENT DEAL UPDATE:

WATCH: World News 03/06/19: Alex Trebek Announces He Has Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer

R. Kelly in custody after failing to pay $ 161,000 in child support; Sen. Martha McSally: I am ‘a military sexual assault survivor’
ABC News: World News Tonight

SPECIAL NEWS BULLETIN:

http://www.acrx.org -As millions of Americans strive to deal with the economic downturn,loss of jobs,foreclosures,high cost of gas,and the rising cost of prescription drug cost. Charles Myrick ,the President of American Consultants Rx, announced the re-release of the American Consultants Rx community service project which consist of millions of free discount prescription cards being donated to thousands of not for profits,hospitals,schools,churches,etc. in an effort to assist the uninsured,under insured,and seniors deal with the high cost of prescription drugs.-American Consultants Rx -Pharmacy Discount Network News

BEST DEAL UPDATE BY AMERICAN CONSULTANTS RX:

Click today to request your free ACRX discount prescription card and save up to 80% off of your medicine!

SPECIAL DONATION REQUEST UPDATE:

Please help American Consultants Rx achieve it’s biggest goal yet of donating over 30 million discount prescription cards to over 50k organizations in an effort to assist millions of Americans in need. Please click here to donate today!

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage? Inside the Future of Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez’s Red-Hot Romance

Jennifer Lopez, Alex RodriguezJennifer Lopez is aware that you want her and Alex Rodriguez to get married.
The attention lavished on the thrice-divorced multi-hyphenate’s relationship of two years with the former…

E! Online (US) – Top Stories

FASHION DEALS:

Take an Extra 20% off Clearance at Zales.com!

Roku drops Alex Jones’ InfoWars amid fierce backlash

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been removed from Roku after the streaming platform faced fierce criticism from users, The New York Times reports. Last year, Jones’ InfoWars channel, as well as his other media projects, were scrubbed from most major social media platforms and streaming services for violating various rules and standards. However, this week,…
Technology News & Reviews | New York Post

SPECIAL SHOE DISCOUNT:

Sources: Redskins QB Alex Smith out of hospital after surgeries, infection

After spending days in the hospital and enduring multiple surgeries on his broken leg, Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith finally has been released — with an encouraging prognosis, no less — per league sources. There is some optimism, but hardly certainty, that Smith will be able to resume his NFL career, though the priority for now is simply recovering from a spiral leg fracture that became infected after multiple surgeries. Smith’s future is at stake, and so is the Redskins’. Taking the personal and most important component out of it, Washington would struggle to overcome the setback that would be created if Smith were unable to return to football. If Smith were unable to play, the Redskins would have to eat $ 20.4 million worth of salary-cap space next season and $ 21.4 million in 2020 — essentially about 13 percent of the NFL’s projected salary cap. A financial scenario such as this would catapult the Redskins…
ABC News: Sports

BEST DEAL UPDATE:

Alex Trebek booed for PA debate host performance

Associated Press

SPECIAL NEWS BULLETIN:

http://www.acrx.org -As millions of Americans strive to deal with the economic downturn,loss of jobs,foreclosures,high cost of gas,and the rising cost of prescription drug cost. Charles Myrick ,the President of American Consultants Rx, announced the re-release of the American Consultants Rx community service project which consist of millions of free discount prescription cards being donated to thousands of not for profits,hospitals,schools,churches,etc. in an effort to assist the uninsured,under insured,and seniors deal with the high cost of prescription drugs.-American Consultants Rx -Pharmacy Discount Network News

CHARITY UPDATE:

Click today to request your free ACRX discount prescription card and save up to 80% off of your medicine!

SPECIAL DONATION REQUEST UPDATE:

Please help American Consultants Rx achieve it’s biggest goal yet of donating over 30 million discount prescription cards to over 50k organizations in an effort to assist millions of Americans in need. Please click here to donate today!

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis talks Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and White House visit

Leonsis explains how his relationship with Ovechkin has evolved and whether it’s important to him that Ovechkin and Backstrom retire as Capitals. As for the White House, he’ll follow his team’s lead.
Sports

BEST DEAL UPDATE:

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: 20% off site-wide with code FLEXOFFERS – Limited time only.

The Stanley Cup started Alex Ovechkin’s summer of joy. It might never end.

“It looks like he’s in the best mode ever,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “He’s just laughing all the time, which is great. He’s going to carry this over, I think. The way he was playing last year and the way he was relaxed, too, I think it’s just unbelievable for us in the locker room to see — how he carries himself.”
Sports

BEST DEAL UPDATE:

EXCLUSIVE OFFER: 20% off site-wide with code FLEXOFFERS – Limited time only.