Judging from Nanette Burstein’s Gringo, American voters missed out on a once-in-a-nation’s-lifetime spectacle when John McAfee lost the Libertarian presidential nomination this spring: We could have had a third-party millionaire in the race whose psychosis, sense of entitlement and willingness to make an ass of himself for publicity gave the Republican candidate a run for his money. Less focused on politics than on criminal investigation, this captivating film — nearly as watchable as 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, which Burstein co-directed — marvels at the possibility that John McAfee’s fame, deriving from his years as America’s most successful fighter of computer viruses, has allowed him to get away with murder. The pic should be a hit on Showtime, and is more deserving of theatrical exposure than many of the docs that have lately played art houses.
The film opens with a teaser of the scandals surrounding its subject in recent years before leaping back to show how McAfee, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, made a fortune by introducing computer users to the concept of viruses and then selling them a suite of software armor against them. Interviewing a slew of co-workers at the small but very profitable firm McAfee Associates, Burstein finds examples of the extreme behavior — an in-office sex contest, specifically — that would characterize his later years abroad.
An engrossing look at a tech titan undone by mogul-sized personality flaws.
After McAfee left his company, he went to Colorado, where he had a yoga-guru phase one suspects might deserve its own documentary. But Burstein covers this period just long enough to hint at McAfee’s tendency toward cult-leader-like behavior before following her subject’s next move: a post-2008-crash decampment to Belize, where his paranoid tendencies would be unfettered.
Here she digs in, interviewing many of the people who were closest to him in Belize — from several of the teenage “girlfriends” he kept on his compound to the felons he hired as armed bodyguards. Both of these groups offer salacious details: For instance, multiple women report that whatever McAfee implied to the media about his sex life, all he actually did with these women was insist that they defecate onto his face. As crazy a picture as Burstein paints, even a cursory bit of research suggests she left just as much on the cutting room floor.
Burstein shows how a combination of legitimate risks (he was a very rich man in a very poor country) and mental instability led McAfee to behave as if he were an unofficial ruler of the two communities where he bought property, lavishing local police with “donations” and expecting to be allowed to do as he pleased. We meet an American scientist whose employment with him went sour: When she told him she was quitting, she says, he drugged and raped her. And we meet perhaps the two figures most closely connected to the event that forced McAfee out of the country.
When a neighbor of his beachfront property, Gregory Faull, poisoned the guard dogs McAfee refused to contain, he very quickly wound up dead himself. That’s when the millionaire’s largess to cops stopped paying off, and he was forced to go on the run as an obvious suspect in the murder. Though she says she began the documentary trying to understand how McAfee’s likely guilt was so quickly forgotten by the media as they covered his latest political aspirations, Burstein seems to have wound up conducting an investigation more thorough, or at least more fruitful, than any local authority. Though her initial question remains — even given the brief shelf life of scandal, how could journalists drop a story this juicy this quickly? — Gringo is so compelling it might just turn the spotlight back onto this 4-year-old killing.
Production company: Ish Entertainment
Director: Nanette Burstein
Producer: Chi-Young Park
Executive producers: Michael Hirschorn, Jeff Wise, Wendy Roth
Director of photography: Robert Chappell
Editors: Lars Woodruffe, Matt Colbourn, Kenneth Levis
Composer: Dana Kaproff
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Not rated, 96 minutes