The Toxic Charisma of John McAfee

A new Showtime documentary paints an eerie, irresistible portrait of the anti-virus software pioneer turned international fugitive.

John McAfee.

John McAfee.


It’s hard to know where to start with John McAfee, so maybe you begin with his face, skin stretched tight over his bones, looking like nothing so much as a wet leather jacket drying on a coat rack. His are the rugged looks—the word “good” never quite applies to McAfee—of a frustrated character actor, the looks of a man who’s tired of playing supporting roles. If that’s true, he has reason to celebrate. Director Nanette Burstein’s new Showtime documentary about the anti-virus software pioneer who became an international fugitive—Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, which premieres on the channel Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. Eastern—makes him the star. It also shows him to be a monster.

In Gringo’s opening moments, Burstein lets McAfee introduce himself in his own words, showing him explaining who he is in grainy police dashcam footage. While the arresting officer seems most interested in the number of guns of McAfee has in his car (three) and the amount of money he has on his person (a few thousand dollars in cash), the man himself seems more concerned with laying out his biography. “I’m John McAfee. … You probably read about me,” he tells the befuddled officer who claims he hasn’t.

Here’s the story McAfee thinks everyone should have read: In the early days of personal computing, he created and successfully marketed one of the first commercial anti-virus programs, software that bore his name. Later, buffered by millions of dollars from the sale of his company, he would move to Belize, where he would be attached to the murder of another American—his neighbor, Gregory Faull—and inspired to flee to Guatemala. Eventually, he found his way back to the United States where, he tells the officer, the FBI was looking for him.

In the 90-odd minutes that follow, Burstein details those misadventures, connecting McAfee to numerous other crimes along the way: A former employee, the microbiologist Allison Adonizio, suggests that he drugged and raped her. On another occasion, he appears to have orchestrated the torture and death of a man who robbed his house. Throughout his time abroad, he accumulated a private force of armed guards and terrorized local communities.

For Burstein, it’s not just McAfee’s offenses that fascinate but also the fact that they’ve effectively been ignored and forgotten. McAfee has never faced prosecution at home or abroad for his alleged crimes. Today, companies still attach their name to their products and services, and the tech press listens in, semi-seriously, to his pronouncements on the state of cybersecurity. What sort of privilege, her film asks, allows such a man to go about his business as if he hadn’t done the things he’s done?

While McAfee himself refused to be interviewed, Burstein exchanged emails with him while making the film, gradually developing what she characterizes as a protracted “cyber relationship.” She includes bits and pieces of their exchange throughout, text gradually appearing on-screen as McAfee evades her questions, crows about his influence, and occasionally even threatens her. Though they’re not always revealing, these email exchanges primarily serve to demonstrate a sense of disquieting, but understandable, intimacy between the filmmaker and her subject: Though she consistently needles and prods him, she also refers to him by his first name as if they were old pals.

Watching her film, it’s easy to understand how that dynamic emerged: Vile as he seems to be, McAfee is still endlessly fascinating, with a kind of toxic charisma. An ideal documentary subject, he’s strangely compelling—if not quite convincing—even when he’s describing the paranoid scenarios that preoccupy him. Maybe it’s the coarse gravel of his voice, or maybe it’s just his dirtbag charm, but either way he managed to pull countless people into his orbit and drove most of them away in time.

Where Burstein’s exchanges with the man himself convey a sense of his personality, her interviews with many of those associates and acquaintances, in Belize and elsewhere, account for much of the new information in the film. In the process, a portrait of singular monstrosity emerges. The comments of one interviewee aside, the McAfee we encounter here isn’t some archetypal ugly American. To be sure, his wealth and status let him run rampant in the economically depressed Belize: The film implies that he manipulated local police forces and took advantage of teenagers to meet his own eccentric sexual needs (which are documented in one unforgettable segment). His worst crimes, however, are entirely sui generis. And it’s his deep idiosyncrasy that makes him so compelling—and dangerous.

Still, in our perilous political moment, there’s something familiar about McAfee’s brand of bloated ego. While discussing his extravagant expatriate lifestyle, his former masseuse describes him as a Belizean Donald Trump. The comparison is striking, especially in light of McAfee’s recent vanity run for president on the Libertarian ticket. (He came in a distant second behind Gary Johnson in the party’s primaries.) Watching Gringo, I found myself thinking that the more apt point of comparison might be Charles Manson, a figure whose charms seem as inexplicable in retrospect as they did irresistible in the moment. Like Manson, McAfee has a way of making everything, even a murder investigation that he’s actively fleeing, about himself.

In one scene, Burstein interviews a man who may have killed Faull for McAfee. Soaked in what appears to be flop sweat, the possible assassin mumbles his way through his answers—the juxtaposition of his awkward sincerity and charged intensity of their encounter making for what’s sure to be one of the most buzzed-about nonfictional on-screen moments this year. The scene is emblematic of what makes Gringo as a whole work so well. Even when Burstein’s questions don’t prompt easy answers, it’s thrilling to consider the possibilities that arise in their wake.

It’s hard to say, though, whether Burstein’s subject will ever face the consequence of his alleged crimes. From the start, McAfee’s greatest gift was probably his understanding of media narratives. Decades before neologisms like “cyberhygiene” started cropping up in headlines, McAfee helped kindle public fear of viruses. In archival news footage, he speaks confidently and clearly to the cameras, turning his own paranoia into a compelling, palatable story. Years later, when his Belizean lab failed to produce remedies as fast as he’d hoped, he would have Adonizio pose for the press with vials full of colorful dyes, producing images that look scientific even if they’re not. I confess that I’ve fallen prey to McAfee’s manipulations, once including him on a list of cyberwar key players in deference to his regular—if ridiculous—pronouncements on the topic.

One wonders, at times, whether this film is a consequence of that same capacity for control, especially given that some of Burstein’s interview subjects still seem to be on his payroll. Nowhere is that truer than in the sequence that leads to the possible identification of Faull’s killer, which finds Burstein piecing together a possible story of the murder—one that would remove McAfee himself from the scene and partially exonerate him—from interviews with his former employees, some of whom may still be in his pocket.

As it happens, though, we’re probably the ones getting played if we embrace this conceit of McAfee as a master manipulator. Indeed, no one wants us to believe that story about John McAfee more than John McAfee does. At one point, Burstein includes an email in which he suggests he’s been playing her all along. But she also features another in which he describes her as “the Satan” and claims that opposing her “will be my last stand.” This isn’t a man in control so much as one desperate to project the mere appearance of control. Ultimately, then, Burstein presents a case against McAfee that’s far too damning to be a product of his own design.