Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Alex Gibney’s on a tear. He’s one of the few documentary filmmakers who is releasing more films than most folks can keep up with, including Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown; We Steal Secrets, on Julian Assange; Sinatra; Going Clear, on Scientology, and The Armstrong Lie. Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, which Gibney narrates, seeks to answer a simple question: why was a man who was as much a terror as a genius, as much a heartless cad as a savior, as much a ruthless busnessman as a tech guru mourned by millions who never met him?
The film follows what is a familiar Gibney tack, dating back to Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: successful men are given their due but their feet of clay are thoroughly exposed as well. Hubris radiates from their very being, or as Job’s first long term partner and mother of his first child, Lisa, notes, he was one of those rare individuals who achieves enlightment through his ego rather than despite or beyond it. He never exhibited empathy toward others, and even tried, in slanderous fashion, to deny the paternity of his first child, until DNA evidence made his lies impossible to sustain. (There is an echo here of Lance Armstrong’s vehement denials of drug use until the test evidence became too overwhelming to deny but it is just one of many lies Jobs spins in the course of the film.)
But, we say, all is forgiven: Steve Jobs singlehandedly gave us the iPod, iPad and, most radiantly of all, the iPhone! His product announcements were major media events and he was, without doubt, The Man in the machine, expressing the wonder and awe we all feel at the magic that digital technology can work.
So why the vast wave of mourning?
Gibney doesn’t answer the question so much as use it as a pretext to explore Jobs’ contradictions, the thing he also does with Elliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, the Enron guys, scientology and Julian Assange. He is our best documentarian when it comes to setting black and white contradictions side by side so that icons and heroes remain so, but with a new found sense of their flawed, sometimes fatally flawed human nature.
And Jobs? Wasn’t he the charismatic face of an entire industry? Other names, from Melissa Mayer to Bill Gates, make the news but none have the charisma of Jobs, who was not only a highly savy geek (and what he didn’t know Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and early casuality of Jobs’ callous ways, did), he was also a born salesman. He gave gadgets a human face. He made us not just want but need them.
This moves into terrain Gibney fails to explore: fetishism, commodity fetishism, to be exact. We overvalue an object because, as Marx explained and as advertisters have known ever since, we fail to see the real human labor that went into it and behold it, instead, as a magical talisman of great power or beauty that arrives from nowhere, or in the hands of a god as a wonderous offering. The fetish stands apart and possesses an aura we come to worship or at least experience with awe. And when we want to associate this with a human face–there it is: not the buxom model standing next to the latest sports car, but Steve Jobs, the man in the machine.
In that sense, the mourning for Jobs was mourning for a dead god, a figure who did not so much produce the magic as stand as its iconic face. That this face was Janus-like is not surprising. How can a commodity be both a thing of beauty and the result of mass pollution, grossly underpaid and overworked employees in foreign lands, suicides and despair? How can a thing earn our deep admiration and also be the source of egregious profit ($300 per iPhone, eg!) that, following the logic of the market place, is not even taxed because it’s tucked into overseas accounts? How can Jobs be a guru and a genius but also a man who lies, deceives and intimidates to get his way?
Is he not an emblem for the contradictions of capitalism itself, a system that uses the fetish object as a distraction from the wreckage that lies behind the marketplace? And as the only such emblem in the enire IT sector, it is little wonder that his passing was profoundly mourned. We are left with the image of an dark, secretive industry of anonymous but revered drones that Jobs himself helped create in the famous Super Bowl ad of the 1984 world we will never need to experience as long as there is a cute little Apple to overthrow the authoritarian IBM’s of the world. But Jobs’s Apple became IBM and in doing so, demonstrated, when we pull back the veil his company has done so much to maintain, the contradictions of a system he never even attempted to alter even as he added a potent new domain to its rule. In that sense, Jobs was more machine than man, but that is what fetishism urges us not to see.