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'The Inventor' review: Must-watch documentary chronicles massive Silicon Valley fraud

Elizabeth Holmes in HBO's "The Inventor: Out for

Elizabeth Holmes in HBO's "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley."  Credit: HBO

DOCUMENTARY "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley"

WHEN | WHERE  Multiple airings all week on HBO and HBO2 (check listings)

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In 2004, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford to start a Silicon Valley company, Theranos, that promised to revolutionize blood testing. She assembled a superstar board, and got nearly  $1 billion in backing. It was also a massive fraud. This Alex Gibney ("Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief") film relies on footage and interviews, including the Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou, who broke open the scandal.

MY SAY "There are only two or three human stories," Willa Cather once famously observed, "and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened before." Quibbling only with her arithmetic — there could be as many as four or five, after all — the bard of the Great Plains was onto something, as recent events would corroborate:

The college admissions scandal … the Fyre Festival … Jussie Smollett (OK, allegedly).

What these particular stories have in common is the human willingness to con and the human willingness to believe the con. It's a tale as old as recorded history, and as new as right now. For some reason we are always shocked at both story and outcome, even though they've been repeating themselves as fiercely as if they'd never happened.

The power — and glory — of "The Inventor" is that it understands all this. Apparently her plan was to string along the suckers until her engineers worked out the kinks. (Holmes was subsequently indicted on a charge of fraud and may face prison time.)

Instead, those kinks just got worse. Sometimes the fake-it-till-you-make-it con works, far more often not. What "The Inventor" makes almost comically clear is that Theranos could have faked it until Kingdom Come but would never have made it. A smart, dogged journalist and a courageous whistleblower established that.

How did this con work? Gibney never says in voice-over, but his pictures and facts and interviews do all the heavy lifting. Foremost, Holmes was backed by elderly, powerful men who saw in her what they wanted to see. Holmes didn't have a single woman on the Theranos board. Perhaps a woman would have seen something different?

Gibney is TV's pre-eminent demolitions expert. He picks his way through the ruins — Enron, Scientology, Theranos — then stacks the rubble back into some recognizable form. The effect can be dazzling, while forcing the viewer to look at something that was in plain sight all along.

Or someone. Holmes commands the screen as if it belongs to her. She surely must have known all along that it would. Much of the footage here is of the dog-and-pony variety, once commissioned by Theranos and designed to sell the con. But it's so high-gloss — so weirdly hypnotic — that neither Gibney nor "The Inventor" can get to the real human behind the image.

A shortcoming of the film? Sure, but the only one.

BOTTOM LINE Must watch.

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