Alex Gibney Talks Elizabeth Holmes and the Culture of Defrauding People

In Alex Gibney's latest documentary for HBO, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, he dives deep into Elizabeth Holmes and her failed startup Theranos.

What drew the writer-direct to the subject was just how many people were duped by the ex-CEO as a result of her powerful connections to influential people. "When I discovered that of all the people who invested money in Theranos — and Rupert Murdoch I think invested $125 million dollars — never of those investors looked at an audited financial statement. That was jaw-dropping to me," he said at the Television Critics Association press tour.

The doc, which explores Holmes' grand plans to revolutionize blood-testing, will debut on March 18 after first premiering at Sundance. As he researched, Gibney was also particularly absorbed by the press' role in Holmes' rise. "I was also really interested in the credulousness of the journalists," he said. "But the power of the story — and I think Elizabeth was a very compelling storyteller — was so immense that everybody just went along."

He attributes a large part of Holmes' success to her ability to surround herself with people who believed her, in turn leading the masses to do the same. "That was the secret of Elizabeth: She surrounded herself with credibility, and the credibility kept multiplying," he explained. "It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill — but no one stops along the way to ask the question, “Are these people credible?”

When a reporter asked the filmmaker about the cultural outrage at being defrauded, pointing to Netflix and Hulu's Fyre Fest documentaries as recent examples, Gibney noted that there's an important lesson to be learned from people like Holmes and Billy MacFarland. "I think there’s always a productive lesson you can take from being defrauded, which is trust but verify," he said.

"I think that to some extent these flaws work because we’re all invested in dreams. We all want to overachieve. We all like people who over promise and overachieve," he continued. "So the grandeur of these visions is compelling to us, which is why I think we’re all in invested in them — but we’re also interested in when people take us in and then lie to us and then fail. And then I think we’re happy that they fail."

As far as defrauders go, Gibney thinks the president is entirely different. "Donald Trump is an interesting case. I’m not sure he’s really in the case of a deceiver. I don’t think there are many people in the country who are fooled by Donald Trump. He doesn’t seem to care about the truth at all, so it’s hard to even engaged with him as somebody who lies. He just makes it up as he goes along. And that seems to be for some people the fun of it all," he said, quipping: "I’m not sure I’m having so much fun."