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Culture Documentary

Make it or fake it

Elizabeth Holmes (HBO)


Make it or fake it

The Inventor shows our propensity to believe what we want to be true

The old adage that “cheaters never prosper” proves true in HBO’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. The documentary spotlights Elizabeth Holmes, CEO and founder of Theranos, a now defunct healthcare company once valued at $9 billion. 

Holmes claimed to have invented a tabletop machine that could perform more than 240 lab tests in minutes from finger-prick–size drops of blood. Such a development would revolutionize healthcare, eliminating the need for vials of blood and lengthy test wait times.

But the device never worked. Holmes, though, insisted it did, bamboozling investors, employees, and media.

On screen, Holmes is attractive and speaks with self-assurance. She rarely blinks, her blue eyes staring intensely at the camera or whomever she’s addressing. She wears the same signature all-black outfit daily: turtleneck, blazer, and pants. A glimpse into her fridge reveals nothing but water bottles.

But the real reveal is watching the rise and fall of a woman once a child prodigy, a student at Stanford, and an influencer among the rich and powerful. Holmes convinced people to invest in Theranos, join its board, or introduce her to other elites. Her fans included former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She appeared on the covers of Forbes and Fortune.

As Holmes promoted her device to investors and employees as totally effective, she simultaneously dodged thorough regulatory inspections of Theranos’ labs. Finally, two Theranos employees, believing Holmes was scamming the world, went public despite threats from her attorneys. Last year, a federal grand jury indicted Holmes and Theranos’ president on fraud and conspiracy charges.

The documentary, rated TV-14 and containing a couple of F-bombs, tries to explain how Holmes snookered so many bright people. Possibly because of her earnestness: She created an emotionally charged story about helping the world, and sold it using her background credibility and charm.

Many interviewees in the film think Holmes still believes she did nothing wrong. Some think she knew the truth all along. Others deem her a sociopath.

Whatever the case, The Inventor shows our propensity to believe what we want to be true.