Alex Gibney, Theranos, and Capturing the Zietgeist

Portrait of Gibney

I watched Alex Gibney’s documentary on Theranos this weekend; the somewhat over-titled, ‘The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley’. Here’s a fact file for those unfamiliar with Theranos;

  • Multi-million dollar tech startup
  • Promises to revolutionize blood-testing
  • Founder and CEO tries to emulate Steve Jobs in everything she does
  • Tell a bunch of lies about their technology
  • Convinces Henry Kissinger[1] and Safeway and others to invest hundreds of millions in their phony tech
  • Eventually get found out, do a bunch of evil stuff to try and cover it up, get done in the end
  • People kind of going to jail but also kind of not

Theranos’ fall has attracted a great deal of attention and adaptations. The Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the stories that brought Theranos down, John Carreyou, wrote a good book about the company and his investigations. Carreyou’s book is the basis for a film starring Jennifer Lawrence[2] and directed by Adam McKay; the guy who did Stepbrothers and The Big Short.

While the world waits for the next step in McKay’s bizarre career, another big name has taken a stab at doing a film version of the Theranos story. Alex Gibney might be the biggest documentary film maker in the world whose name isn’t Lynn Novick or Ken Burns.[3] He has made a habit out of studying high profile frauds—previous subjects of his include Enron, the Church of Scientology, and Lance Armstrong. Choosing Theranos was another working out of Gibney’s compelling formula.

Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes

The Inventor displays many of the qualities that have made Gibney a successful documentarian. Gibney and his team have conducted a large number of interviews with all the major figures in the Theranos drama, or at least those figures who aren’t legally liable for the company’s fraud. In order to cover those ex-board members and executives who are in legal hot water, Gibney and his team have clearly gone through hours and hours of archival footage. There is a wealth of interview clips of Holmes, as well as a good amount of behind the scenes and internal-Theranos footage. There are some great moments, including a surreal sequence where the executives take a break from commiting a billion dollar fraud to jump on a bouncy castle.

All this material is presented in a very watchable manner. Gibney knows how to connect scenes, with one clip moving naturally into the next. The crisp pacing that defined the Enron and Scientology movies is also here in The Inventor. Gibney makes it through the complexities of a decade long medical fraud without getting lost in the scientific details. As well as the archival footage, Gibney has made some good use of CGI. There’s a nice comparative sequence that contrasts how the Theranos testing machines—the so called Edisons— were supposed to function with the unsanitary and inaccurate mess that they were in actuality. All of this helps the non-expert viewer (read: me) get through the compelling but complex story of Theranos.

Theranos blood

The film also contains much of what makes Gibney such a strange documentarian.  Gibney’s trademark comically unsubtle visual metaphors are here again. The Theranos machines were named Edison’s; we therefore get a section on Edison’s own minor frauds, rounded off by an image of Edison that warps into a picture of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos. That’s deep, bro. One interviewee compares Holmes to Mozart—quick cut!—here’s picture of Mozart, Mozart music begins playing out of nowhere. I get it.

The over the top imagery is part of the film’s oddly unserious tone. At numerous times in the interviews the subjects are filmed laughing and joking with Gibney. Close to half the interviewees must have a clip of them laughing at some point in the film. This occurs even during the heaviest parts of the film, such as when it covers Theranos’ giving fraudulent results to patients, or the actions of whistleblowers. The flippancy goes beyond occasional levity and becomes a core part of the film. As the Theranos story involves a huge fraud and a number of actual deaths, this seems a bit inappropriate, as well as tonally jarring.

The shifts in emotional register would not be so much of an issue where it not for The Inventor’s messy structure. Telling a story in a documentary is always tricky, never more so than when it’s story like that of Theranos—a story your audience already knows about. Gibney’s choices are still a bit odd. The film is not chronological, nor is it thematic. The structure of the synopsis follows neither time nor ideas, but instead both. We begin near to the end with some reflections on Holmes, and then jump around in a loosely chronological retelling of the story, with many diversions and digressions. There are sections on the paranoid culture at Theranos, on Holmes’ secret relationship with her no.2 at the company, on her well-connected board. All of this feels like following the process of Gibney researching the film, reading things and discovering new material in the out-of-order way that you compile information while doing background. It’s interesting material, but things become a bit scattershot when told with an inconsistent tone and without a clear purpose, .

I’m also unsure about Gibney’s choice of who tells the story. He gives a decent amount of time to important Theranos whistleblowers such as Erika Cheung and Tyler Schultz, as well as lots of time to some high profile journalists who wrote positive accounts of Theranos and Holmes in the days before the Journal revelations. The bulk of the narrative material is provided by people who were suckered into Holmes’ myth, like Ken Auletta and Roger Parloff. These men are interesting writers at prestigious institutions, but they mostly just relate being charmed by Holmes, and then being disappointment with her lies. Theranos’ collapse was embarrassing for them, but Auletta and Parloff were not invested enough in the company to be called victims. Their material is a bit flabby and they can’t claim to be victims of Theranos; why then are they accorded more time than Carreyou, Cheung, or Schultz?

A look at Gibney’s career might provide a hint. His choice of topics follows headlines. He is a zeitgeist director, a document-er of the very recently passed. He covered Lance Armstrong during his comeback. He covered Enron right after their collapse. He looked into abuse in the Catholic Church a decade after the Boston Globe broke the first US stories.[1] Most of his films —the Armstrong movie is a waste of time—are no less valuable for being driven by fashion, but they suggest a director keen to find the limelight. The foregrounding of famous and prestigious writers like Parloff and Auletta is just another example of this.

Looking back at Gibney’s career provides plenty of examples of the shortcomings described above. The Smartest Guys in the Room is a good movie, but one replete with terrible visual metaphors. At one point a literal potato sack with a dollar sign is dropped in front of the camera. This isn’t a director subverting cliché but rather one luxuriating in it. The Enron film also follows a free-associative pattern of editing as it jumps between time periods and plot points with an almost compulsive lack of focus. Neither Smartest Guys in the Room nor The Inventor are bad movies, but the repitition of mistakes at over a decades’ remove reveal Gibney as a director unable to learn from his mistakes.

Gibney does want his audience to learn things from his movies. Many of his films feature input from figures that play a pedagogical or moralizing purpose. This is an interviewee who delivers, in lieu of the narrator, the message of the film. In Smartest Guys in the Room, it is the raft of interviewees—including an actual priest—who reflect upon man’s capacity for greed. In The Inventor, he has psychologist Dan Ariely give extended pontifications upon self-delusion. Gibney portrays the historical events that he covers as morality plays, ones that point towards various diseases in the body of the nation. The quality of this message varies with his choice of teller, and the manner of its telling.

Gibney’s choice of storytellers, and the messages that he repeats, point towards his real concerns as a filmmaker.[2] He purpose is quite different from other hat of other famous documentarians. He is not, ultimately, a simple chronicler of events, nor is he an historian like Novick or Burns, nor a cultural critic like Adam Curtis, nor a campaigner like DuVernay. He is a man who wants to capture the zeitgeist that he follows; he wants to sum up the national mood in one hundred and twenty minutes. If Ken Burns is at home being interview by an historian at an academic conference, Gibney is more acclimatized to the cable news studio, preparing to answer questions that resemble marketing materials.

I am aware that my criticism implies Gibney’s work is unserious, and so I want to be clear at the end of this blog; Gibney is a good documentary filmmaker. My feeling is rather that his work is not quite as serious or as deep as it could be, and in some instances, as it really ought to be.



[1] Maxima Mea Culpa is a very good movie, and tells an under-covered story, but the point is that Gibney follows the temper of the times when it comes to his choice of subject.

[2] I couldn’t find room to include a section on lying and fraud as Gibney’s core theme, but it runs throughout his work.




[1] Wtf

[2] Also kinda wtf

[3] Ava DuVernay has branched out beyond documentaries, but she’s another big name in the genre.

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