Looking back, it's puzzling that more people didn't wise up to Elizabeth Holmes more quickly. The Stanford dropout who claimed to have invented a revolutionary medical technology that she was somehow never able to demonstrate was a bizarre person. As a rare top tech woman who idolized Steve Jobs, she spoke in a weird baritone voice and kept a closet full of identical black outfits—including many Jobsian turtlenecks—at home, where she spent about four non-office hours a day sleeping. She rarely blinked her eyes, which was a little unnerving, and she had a presence so alien that you expected to see a lizardy tongue flick out from between her lips at any moment.
Now you too can have the Elizabeth Holmes experience in Alex Gibney's new HBO documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Since Holmes embraced the idea of media adulation as her due, accumulating tongue-bath features in Fortune, Forbes, Glamour and Inc., gracing the studios of Charlie Rose and Jim Cramer, and hanging out socially with Katie Couric, Amy Schumer and, um, Jared Leto, Gibney had a fat archive of deluxe footage at his disposal—some of it shot in the stark white spaces favored by advertising directors, some of it even shot by the great Errol Morris (a veteran of many ad campaigns himself, whose classic crime documentary The Thin Blue Line seems to have been an influence on this film, especially on its occasional recreations and on Will Bates's moody, meditative score).
The story is fairly well-known by now. Engineering student Elizabeth Holmes drops out of college in 2004 to found a company called Theranos, with which she intends to shake up the diagnostic blood-testing industry. Blood tests are expensive and they often require multiple tubes of blood, gruesomely drawn from patients' arms. Holmes says she always hated this procedure and found it inadequate. Having a blood work-up done once a year only provided an annual snapshot of a person's health; if there were some convenient way for people to get their blood tested every month, the ongoing evaluation would be more like a movie. Holmes's better idea is a machine she calls The Edison, a sort of magic box in which up to 200 tests can be conducted on a single drop of blood in a matter of minutes. Nobody ever actually saw this machine work, because it never really did. (The Edison was of course named after the legendary Thomas Alva—"the first celebrity businessman," as Gibney puts it: a man who "invented himself." Holmes is a big Edison fan, too.)