The following article discusses the themes explored in the documentary, which includes substance abuse, mental health, gun violence and suicide.
We all know, or knew, that guy. Not in your social circle, but known nonetheless; someone’s older brother, cousin or drinking buddy. Whenever they had a captive audience they tell you tales of their exploits when they’re not kicking around suburban Lowestoft. In between puffs of cigarette smoke and the cheapest whiskey available, they’ll say they tried to join the army, but the recruitment people told them they were just too brilliant to waste in an infantry unit. Or they are an off-duty bodyguard who was lying low because The Mafia was looking for them (don’t ask why, shut up). Or that they had just signed a contract to replace The Undertaker at The Wrestling™ and would be jetting off to the US in the near future. The intensity of their testimony may, for a brief second, sucker you in, but you’ll soon realize that these people are more Walter Mitty than Walter White. Now imagine what that guy would look like if they’d been handed $100 million, and you’ll get a fairly decent pen portrait of John McAfee in his later years.
Running with the Devil: The wild world of John McAfee is a new documentary, arriving on Netflix on August 24th. It harnesses footage from the lost, unreleased Vice documentary On The Run with John McAfee, as well as film McAfee commissioned himself. It attempts to chronicle the life of the antivirus software pioneer from when he was named as a person of interest following the death of his neighbor Gegory Faull in Belize, through to his death in 2021. McAfee would spend his last decade on the run from pursuers, both real and imaginary, become embroiled in a cryptocurrency scam, try to run for US president (twice) and loudly declare that he refused to pay his taxes, which attracted the attention of the IRS. Arrested in Spain on charges of tax evasion, he died by suicide in his prison cell.
Devil is broken into three rough parts, each told from the perspective of the people in McAfee’s orbit at the time. Part one focuses on then-Vice editor-in-chief Rocco Castoro and legendary photojournalist Robert King, who accompanied McAfee on his escape to Guatemala. Part Two covers McAfee’s backstory and his relationship with ghostwriter Alex Cody Foster, with whom he sat for a series of interviews. Part Three shows how McAfee would eventually reconnect with Robert King, and asked him to become his personal biographer as he sailed on his yacht, mostly around South America. The footage is interspersed with commentary from McAfee’s partners, as well as Foster, Castoro and King.
Something that’s clear from both the footage and the contributors is that McAfee was obsessed with truth, but not always as you or I would understand it. There are several times when he fixates upon his legacy, his reputation, his image, his story and how he would be perceived. And yet the story was malleable, the facts unclear, and his behavior erratic – while on the run, he would buy a disguise and then proudly tell everyone in the store his name, and pose for photographs. McAfee’s behavior mirrors the cult leader who’s gone all-in on the grand deception, both in his use of charm, and his propensity for violence. More than once he’s pictured or discussed pointing a gun at friends and allies for what feels like nothing more than the pleasure of being a bully, or at least to remind everyone who had the power.
If you’re looking for some sort of truth, or grand coherent narrative to help you grasp who John McAfee was, however, you won’t get it here. That’s not a criticism of the documentary – McAfee loved to hint about who he was without ever saying it out loud, and always muddying his own water. There are scenes where he implies he is responsible for the death of both his abusive father and Faull, but never to anyone’s satisfaction. But it’s similarly clear that much of his bravado disappears when he’s faced with real consequences for his actions. Much is made, too, of his substance abuse, which seems to have supercharged his paranoia and delusional thinking.
Much of the footage shot by King is low-res, untreated first-person digital video, although there’s little shakycam here. It instantly dates the footage back to the start of the last decade, and sets the scene perfectly given the turn-of-the-millennium anxieties it creates. It works here, too, because it captures the unpleasant stale air in rooms that haven’t had their windows opened for too long. Rooms scattered with dirt and loose tobacco flakes, a half-empty whiskey bottle resting on its side next to some bath salts and a loaded handgun. It helps capture the smallness of the man in his decline, especially as he rages against not the dying of the light, but to the world’s seeming indifference. I imagine that anyone trying to dock a yacht in a foreign country with a cadre of automatic weapons and mercenaries on board would be greeted with a frosty reception from the local police. But, for McAfee, it’s all part of the grand conspiracy the world has contorted around him, and it’s sad. But you can’t feel too much sympathy for him given the trail of destruction left in his wake, and there’s little closure offered for his victims here.
If there’s one thing I wish the film did better, it’s helping the audience keep track of who, and where, everyone is at each point. I’m not always a fan of documentaries with hand-holding narrators, but this is the sort of film that really needs you to have Wikipedia to hand. That’s not to say it’s not worth watching, both if you knew of McAfee or if the original saga had passed you by. But if it lacks something, it’s enough of a sense of place and time to help you keep track of all of the things that McAfee was up to, and when.
It’s funny, several of my colleagues met with McAfee over the years – including this Engadget Show segment back in 2013. (Back then, McAfee said that he was parodying and leaning in to his insalubrious reputation while he made his viral videos. The documentary makes it clear that there was perhaps more truth than he was prepared to admit.) I’d even walked past McAfee several times at CES, often sitting alone in a sparsely-attended corner of one of the smaller show halls. I often wondered if I should go and speak to him, but there was something of the That Guy even when he was ostensibly on his best behavior. I could imagine him clamping his hand on my shoulder, fixing me with his dark eyes and spinning a fresh bewitching tale of mystery and intrigue, although as it turns out, the truth was probably wilder.