Released: 24th August
Seen: 26th August
John McAfee was one of the most wildly fascinating people to ever walk the earth. His initial fame came from his work in computers, he’s the man who created the McAfee virus protection software that’s possibly running on the very device you’re reading this review on. so he has made a considerable impact on many lives… he was also accused of the murder of his neighbour in Belize, went on the run to Guatemala to avoid the charges, was extradited to the US, ran for president twice, was charged with tax evasion, fled the US and went to Spain in order to avoid those specific charges and was later found dead in his cell from an apparent suicide that may have been a murder or he faked his own death, who the hell knows. It’s a wild story that could make for a truly insane documentary… and Running With The Devil is certainly insane, just not sure how good it is.
Running with the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee begins with the simple premise that a film crew was actually secretly travelling with John as he kept running from the cops, capturing how he tried to keep a low profile and his many run-ins with the law along the way. Presenting the raw footage of that experience, Running with the Devil is intermittently interrupted by talking head interviews with the crew that went with John along with his partner and a ghostwriter who all either detail what the experience of being on the run with John felt like or fill in the blanks of some elements of his wild personality/history. Running with the Devil culminates with a very brief description of his eventual final arrest and ‘suicide’, leading the audience to ask what elements of the man’s life were even real and what parts were just a crazy man showboating.
Conceptually there is something kind of fascinating going on here, the first-hand exploration of a wanted fugitive who is nothing short of genuinely insane. There is nothing fake about the reality this crew went through, John McAfee was really on the run from the law and dragged a real documentary crew along with him to witness him as he changed disguises, tried to bribe customs officers and dealt with various police officers and all of that is genuinely fascinating. Often in this kind of documentary, they’ll have people describe how someone ran from the cops and maybe do a cheesy re-enactment but here we get to just see it for real, automatically giving Running with the Devil something unique to work with.
What makes Running with the Devil even more fascinating is that John McAfee himself was an insanely strange person, the kind of man who would gleefully boast about who he was and that he was on the run to anyone who would talk to him for a few seconds. He walked around constantly armed, had multiple girlfriends who were either upsettingly close to being underage or were former sex workers who allegedly tried to kill him, lived on a boat for a period of time so he could get away if necessary and lived in constant paranoia. He might not have been a good man, but this is a compelling figure who would make for a fascinating documentary or docuseries… provided that the docuseries was able to make sense of McAfee’s nonsense.
The problem with Running with the Devil is that it’s about as unhinged as McAfee was, barely keeping a decent structure and feeling more like the ramblings of a madman as interpreted by people who ran into him every now and then. It makes for a story that’s hard to follow, we already know that the main person Running with the Devil is talking about is incredibly unreliable as a source of information but the film never dares correct him when he lies. It never really investigates what he’s alleged to have done or why he is how he is, we’re just presented with a madman and asked to follow while the madman does mad things and it ends up creating a piece that’s just hard to care about.
It’s not like it’s impossible to make a compelling documentary about an insane asshole who constantly lies, we all experienced Tiger King at the start of the Pandemic so we have very recent examples of someone making a compelling and compulsively watchable TV series out of someone who is just completely nuts… but that’s not here. Everything is so muddled and misshapen that it’s hard to be shocked by the new revelations that keep coming out about how this man lived his life. Moments that should shock the audience are just kind of glossed over, barely even talked about by the people involved. It’s all surface and because the surface of McAfee was that of a crazy man who was going a million miles a minute, it’s impossible to grasp onto what was actually going on.
Running with the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee should be a lot better than it is, it’s not like the subject matter isn’t strong enough to make for something worth watching but the problem comes in the presentation. It’s just all over the place, if you go into this expecting to understand John McAfee any better than you did before then you’re going to be disappointed. It doesn’t even really give you an idea about how he evaded the police for so long (Indeed, you might end up wondering how incompetent everyone had to be to let him stay out of prison as long as he did since the man ran for president twice while literally being wanted for murder). The part of this that’s actually interesting is just the fact that someone was trailing McAfee while he was on the run, but that’s not really enough to carry a feature-length documentary.