‘Running with the Devil’ offers an unpleasant glimpse at the ‘real’ John McAfee

The following article covers the topics covered in the documentary, including substance abuse, mental health, gun violence, and suicide.

We all know or knew this guy. Not in your circle of acquaintances, but well known; someone’s older brother, cousin, or drinking buddy. Whenever they’ve had a captive audience, they’ll tell you tales of their exploits when they’re not frolicking around the suburb of Lowestoft. Between puffs of smoke and the cheapest whiskey available, they say they tried to join the army but the recruiters told them so just too awesome to waste in an infantry unit. Or they’re an off-duty bodyguard in hiding 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 flying to the US in the near future. The intensity of their testimony may draw you in for a brief second, but you’ll soon realize that these people are more Walter Mitty than Walter White. Now imagine what this guy would look like they’d been given $100 million and you get a pretty decent pen portrait of John McAfee in his later years.

Running with the Devil: The Wild World by John McAfee is a new documentary coming to Netflix on August 24th. It uses footage from the lost, unreleased Vice documentary , as well as film commissioned by McAfee himself. It attempts to chronicle the life of the antivirus software pioneer from his designation as a person of interest after the death of his neighbor Gegory Faull in Belize to his death in 2021. McAfee has spent his last decade on the run from persecutors, both real and imagined, becoming embroiled in a cryptocurrency scam, attempting to run for US President (twice) and loudly declaring that he refuses to pay his taxes, which caught the attention of the IRS. Arrested in Spain for tax evasion, he committed suicide in his prison cell.

Devil is divided into three broad parts, each told from the perspective of the people who were in the McAfee environment 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 relationship with ghostwriter Alex Cody Foster, with whom he conducted a number of interviews. Part Three shows how McAfee would eventually reconnect with Robert King and asked him to become his personal biographer while he sailed primarily around South America on his yacht. The footage is interspersed with commentary from McAfee’s partners, as well as Foster, Castoro and King.

Something that is clear from both the footage and the contributors is that McAfee was obsessed with it truth, but not always in the way you or I would understand it. There are several times he gets fixated on 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 unpredictable – while on the run he bought a costume and then proudly told everyone in the store his name and posed for photos. McAfee’s demeanor mirrors the cult leader who went all-in on the great deception in both his use of charm and his propensity for violence. More than once he’s featured or spoken about pointing a gun at friends and allies because it feels like nothing more than the pleasure of being a bully, or at least as a reminder to everyone who held the power.

However, if you’re looking for some kind of truth or a great cohesive narrative to help you understand who John McAfee was, you won’t find it here. That’s not a criticism of the documentary — McAfee loved to hint at who he was without ever saying it out loud, and always muddied his own water. There are scenes where he hints that he is responsible for both his abusive father’s death and Lazy, but never to anyone’s satisfaction. But it’s also clear that much of his bravery disappears when he’s faced with real consequences for his actions. Much is also made of his substance abuse, which seems to increase his paranoia and delusional thinking.

Running with the Devil: The Wild World by John McAfee. John McAfee in Running with the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee. Kr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

Netflix

Much of the footage King shot is low-resolution, unedited first-person digital video, though there’s little shake here. It instantly dates the footage back to the beginning of the last decade and sets the scene perfectly given the millennial anxieties it creates. Again, it works because it captures the unpleasantly stale air in rooms where the windows haven’t been opened for too long. Rooms full of dirt and loose tobacco flakes, a half-empty whiskey bottle lying on its side next to some bath salts and a loaded pistol. It helps capture the man’s smallness in his decline, especially when he rages not against the dying of the light but against the world’s seeming indifference. I imagine 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 chilly reception from the local police force. But for McAfee, it’s all part of the grand conspiracy that has twisted the world around him, and it’s sad. But you can’t feel too much sympathy for him given the trail of destruction he’s left in his wake, and there’s little closure for his sacrifices here.

If there’s one thing I wish the film could do better, it helps the audience keep track of who and where everyone is at each point. I’m not always a fan of documentaries with narrators holding hands, but this is the kind of film where you really need to have Wikipedia handy. That’s not to say it’s not worth checking out, both if you knew about McAfee and if the original saga passed you by. But if something’s missing, a sense of place and time is enough to help you keep track of all the things McAfee was up to and when.

It’s funny, several of my colleagues have met with McAfee over the years – including this one Segment back in 2013. (At the time, McAfee said he parodied and relied on his sinister reputation while filming his viral videos. The documentary makes it clear that there may be more truth to it than he was willing to admit.) At CES I even walked past McAfee several times, often sitting alone in a sparsely populated corner of one of the smaller exhibition halls. I’ve often wondered if I should go and talk to him, but there was something about this guy, even when he was supposedly on his best behavior. I could picture him putting his hand on my shoulder, fixing me with his dark eyes, and telling a fresh, enchanting story full of mystery and intrigue, although it turned out the truth was probably wilder.

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Russell Falcon

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