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Culture Documentary


Elizabeth Holmes


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.

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Amazon Studios

Amazon Studios


Banning the children

One-Child Nation shows the dark consequences of China’s forced family planning

Imagine government officials barging into your home if you have multiple children, confiscating “extra” kids, then adopting them out to foreign countries. China’s one-child policy caused this scheme and much worse to occur for more than 35 years, from 1979 through 2015.

Amazon Prime Video’s One-Child Nation is a disturbing and weighty documentary investigating the devastating effects of China’s birthing restrictions.

Last year, director Nanfu Wang, living in New Jersey, returned with her infant son to the Chinese village where she was born and raised. She wanted to understand how China’s policy caused almost 350 million abortions, created an environment where discarding baby girls was commonplace, and tore families apart.

Wang talks intimately with her mother, relatives, and villagers whom the laws traumatized. She interviews policy enforcers and “family planning” officials, most of whom regret what they felt forced to do, but one proudly displays national awards for performing thousands of abortions and sterilizations.

Chinese culture propagates extreme bias for male offspring, without which families fear they’ll go extinct. Wang’s aunt and uncle each abandoned an infant daughter. The uncle left his baby in the marketplace. He returned to find her dead, covered with flies. Wang’s aunt found a child-trafficker to take her daughter to an orphanage that paid him for his “find.”

Another segment highlights a tearful artist who paints pictures of aborted babies he found labeled medical waste in trash heaps. He wants China never to forget these lives. Sadly and wrongly, Wang equates what happened with China’s forced abortions to U.S. limits on abortions, saying both governments take away women’s control of their bodies.

Today, no evidence of China’s one-child policy outwardly remains. Instead, propaganda posters promoting “two children are great!” abound because the country doesn’t have enough young people to take care of the elderly.

Rated R for graphic content, images, and brief language, including a few F-bombs in subtitles, the film elicits emotional reminders of the deep need for Christ’s mercy and redemption.

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Fighters in the sky

Spitfire tells the story of the WWII airplane that helped save Britain

A single-propeller Spitfire loops and soars over the green British countryside, its pilot reveling in the craft’s liveliness. Spitfire, a documentary available on Netflix, tells the tale of the last of the fighter planes without a jet engine, a plane that became a symbol of British courage during the Second World War.

By 1940, the Nazi war machine had conquered nearly all of Europe. Adolf Hitler set his sights on the British Isles, and rather than launch an immediate invasion, the German dictator relied on the powerful Luftwaffe and its thousands of bombers and fighters to soften up resistance.

Airplane manufacturer Supermarine had developed a fast, powerful, and responsive fighter plane, the Spitfire. With a unique wing shape, a Rolls-Royce engine, and a narrow fuselage, it became an instant favorite of the Royal Air Force. British pilots were outnumbered 4 to 1 in 1940, although they had the advantage of radar technology.

The documentary lets veteran pilots tell most of the story. From the vantage point of their advancing years, they look back with amazement on the exploits of their late teens and early 20s, shaking their heads at their own youthful courage and naiveté. They describe the intense fear of every mission, when sweat poured down over their eyes and faces as they saw enemy planes all around. Some recall their prayers as they fought. They lost close friends and comrades, and the memories remain near the surface all these decades later. (A few instances of profanity dot the TV-14 film.)

After months of intense aerial fighting, the pilots won the Battle of Britain and the nation lived to fight on. The Spitfire saw 24 different iterations during the war years, becoming more powerful, able to chase and shoot down the hated German V-1 rocket missiles. By the end of the war, jet engines made the Spitfire less relevant. But the plane remains today a powerful reminder of when the freedom of the Western world hung in the balance.

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