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Netflix's John McAfee Doc Is as Dishonest as Its Subject

The filmmaking may get your heart racing, but it's an empty thrill.
  • John McAfee in an image from Netflix's Running With the Devil. (Photo: Netflix)
    John McAfee in an image from Netflix's Running With the Devil. (Photo: Netflix)

    Update: Two people interviewed in the documentary — Rocco Castoro and Alex Cody Foster — responded to our review. We documented their reactions here.

    If you make it to the end of Running With the Devil, Netflix's new documentary about tech pioneer-turned-fugitive John McAfee, the streamer will probably recommend other true crime properties about murders and espionage and fallen public figures. Really, though, you should follow it with something about a cult leader. The film mostly proves that McAfee was a master mainpulator whose marks included many seasoned journalists and, quite possibly, the filmmakers themselves.

    The warning signs are there from the very start: We're treated to a rapid-fire montage of McAfee, who made his fortune creating the famous anti-virus software, declaring that people are out to get him because he has secrets on all the world's leaders. We learn this footage was shot by Robert King, a war photographer who first embedded with McAfee when Vice sent him to film the guy fleeing a murder charge in Belize. We also meet Rocco Costoro, who was editor-in-chief of Vice during the Belize incident, and who bolted with McAfee from hotel to hotel, soaking up assertions about the people who were after him.

    What we don't hear about, ever, are all of the other journalists that McAfee enlisted as his personal mouthpieces, then publicly attacked after they wrote things that displeased him. We never hear why McAfee selected Vice to follow him around the first place, and we don't hear that King posted deceitful social media messages about what happened in South America. Instead, Costoro talks about how he was victimzed by the same authorities who were chasing McAfee, since he had to hole up in a hotel to avoid them. And we hear at length about how King continued to document McAfee years later, when he was hiding out on a boat full of guns, liquor, and cash.

    King says this made him uncomfortable, and he nods to the fact that McAfee was paranoid, but the film keeps suggesting paranoia was the correct mindset. For instance, a ghostwriter named Alex Cody Foster, who interviewed McAfee at length, essentially accuses him of murder, but then seems to bend over backwards to support McAfee's assertion that his software may have helped him gather intel on dangerous and powerful people. To further bolster the claim that McAfee had high-profile enemies, there's even a stagey section where Foster begs the filmmakers not to show him talking about a cartel that supposedly wanted McAfee dead.

    By the time we get to McAfee's apparent death by suicide in a Spanish prison last year, the film goes all in on the conspiracy theory that he was murdered in his cell. Multiple people are interviewed to support this idea while nobody is on record suggesting that, maybe, the narcissist tycoon who hired a film crew to cover his flight from the law was the kind of person rash enough to end his own life.

    Even without that type of skepticism to inform our thinking, we only have to pay attention to what's on screen to see that McAfee was a volatile and untrustworthy figure. In archival footage, he constantly aggrandizes himself and speaks to people in a way that forces them to acknowledge how important he is. He also unctuously flatters people like King, who says in an interview that he spent most of his life feeling adrift. The same goes for McAfee's eventual wife Janice, who was working as a prostitute before meeting McAfee.

    In other words, we see him use his power and influence to control vulnerable people. Or at least it strongly appears that way. Although some interviewees do say they were wary of McAfee's manipulative grandstanding, they inevitably couch their dissent by saying his story was compelling or he was just a really magnetic guy. Again: These are the kinds of half-hearted denouncements that cult members make when documentarians knock on their door. By letting this tone prevail, the filmmakers seem beholden to the idea that their subject was a bad boy outlaw.

    Their credulousness does make the movie engrossing, if only because you keep waiting for a thoughtful perspective that never comes. Instead, in the very last moments, we hear a salacious statement, presented without follow-up, about what "really" happened to McAfee in jail. It's dropped like a bomb, or like a season finale on Scandal, and it says as much about this film's blinkered thinking as all its other scenes put together.

    Running With the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee premieres August 24 on Netflix.

    Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.

    TOPICS: Running With the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee, Netflix, John McAfee