Running with the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee, a new documentary on Netflix about the life, crimes, and of the software entrepreneur-turned-international weirdo exile, is a film that raises questions about what documentary filmmaking is supposed to be about. Is the goal to tell an interesting story? Or is it to get at the truth and get through layers of lies and obfuscation? Running With the Devil succeeds at the former, but fails at the latter.
John McAfee is the guy behind the antivirus software that bears his name, although he sold his company years ago, for hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the decades he developed a reputation as an eccentric, often involved in shady adventures in surprising parts of the world. The film, directed by Charlie Russell, uses various source material to depict McAfee during the last decade or so of his life. He first found himself in exile in Belize, then Guatemala, as he faced charges of murdering a neighbor, in an alleged dispute involving a dog and a parrot. He managed, through a combination of wit, bribery and faking a heart attack, to get back to the U.S., where he mounted a candidacy for president of the United States (for the Libertarian Party nomination) in 2016.
Four years later, McAfee was arrested in Spain for tax evasion, and died in jail the following June, in what was ruled a suicide. Whether he really killed himself, and killed the man in Belize—as well as his own abusive father, who the film implies he may have whacked as well—is left ambiguous, along with most other major extant questions about McAfee's life and crimes.
The story behind Running With the Devil is probably more fascinating that the film itself. Much of the footage got its start as On the Run with John McAfee, a documentary for Vice that was abandoned, although the film later resumes with other footage that McAfee commissioned on his own. The Vice footage is in the Vice house style of about 10 years ago, and later sometime-Vice editor Rocco Castor and cameraman Robert King appear as talking heads sharing their feelings about McAfee and their occasional misgivings about working with him. This is also true of Alex Cody Foster, a biographer who was hired by McAfee after the Vice project. Later, King is back, filming McAfee and his entourage on a boat voyage.
This isn't a hagiography or a hatchet job. The filmmakers of Running With the Devil provide a front row seat to what this crazy character was doing for 10 years, while also throwing up its hands and not bothering to conclude what's true and what isn't. McAfee's unhinged social media presence—which entailed him once claiming on Twitter that he’d participated in "the world's only whale-fucking contest”—isn’t addressed, although I’d imagine the whale anecdote, like most of what McAfee claims, isn’t true.
McAfee's story resembles Andy Kaufman’s in a way, in that he's so often full of shit that anyone watching doesn't know what to believe. And as with Kaufman, the question is raised over whether he faked his own death, as alleged by his sometime girlfriend at the end of the film. That would seem to contradict the rival conspiracy theory, pushed by McAfee's widow, that he was murdered.