John McAfee isn’t fooling anyone. In a documentary profile filled with damning evidence, there’s something self-incriminating in McAfee’s “You probably read about me” response to being arrested by police, all caught on squad car dashcams.
It’s the opening scene of Nanette Burstein’s “Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee,” a detailed look at the trail left behind by a millionaire untethered from social and legal norms. From his time as progenitor of the once-ubiquitous McAfee antivirus software, through his business ventures overseas in Belize and his recent bid for the Libertarian presidential nomination, Burstein looks at the consequences of empowering an individual to trade on his name and not his abilities. In a media landscape that hasn’t fully realized how to cover business mogul presidential candidates, “Gringo” shows what it takes to truly examine the past of a volatile public figure.
“Gringo” is light on McAfee’s pre-Belize exploits, opting to instead focus on the rise of his fiefdom in Belize’s Orange Town district. Burstein fast-forwards through the traditional rich man origin story, even though a few choice anecdotes from the early software days of McAfee Associates indicate there’s enough material there for its own film.
Detailing the string of activity after McAfee’s move to Belize, Burstein posits him as the ugliest kind of predatory philanthropist, whose gifts to his newly-adopted home region are far from altruistic. Behind every contribution to the local police force, there’s the tacit acknowledgment that future favors were expected. His efforts to help vulnerable young teenage girls in dire financial situations inevitably comes with expectations that they’ll be his girlfriends as well. (Burstein’s standout bit of revenge for McAfee’s elusiveness is a brilliantly edited montage of McAfee’s girlfriends’ descriptions of the mogul’s sexual penchants.)
The aerial photography of McAfee’s latent Belize property and the surrounding neighborhoods serve as effective indicators of the legacy that McAfee left on the area. Robert Chappell’s camera floats through McAfee’s palatial shoreline estate like a tourism commercial. But it also lingers on the streets that McAfee sought to control by fashioning himself as the expat Don of Orange Town, complete with a tiny militia security detail.
Following the trail of gunpowder through McAfee’s island timeline, Burstein arrives at the string of events that finally caught international attention. In the wake of the unsolved murder of McAfee’s island neighbor, Gregory Faull, McAfee became a person of interest in the case. After escaping to Guatemala, McAfee fashioned himself into a celebrity fugitive, using interviews with various media outlets to help plead his innocence, avoiding extradition and further questioning.
As a workaround for a lack of direct access to McAfee for his version of the events, Burstein places herself as a visible guide through this saga, repeatedly putting her email back-and-forth with McAfee on screen. One sequence towards the film’s close serves as the culmination of that online discussion, but this process of representing McAfee’s side occasionally plays right into the troll handbook and doesn’t quite deliver the emotional payoff it seeks.
Luckily, Burstein offsets this thread with a bevy of testimonials from those who might otherwise have been relegated to the sidelines: the caretaker with the strongest hint behind Faull’s killer, the local journalists who explain McAfee’s avenues of avoiding the investigation, the biologist and former McAfee business partner whose accusations are impossible to ignore. Collectively, these voices not only help piece together a series of events, but prevent the story from resting completely in the hands of easily persuaded outside observers.
“Gringo” is ostensibly a close examination of the alleged horrific practices of someone who took privilege to an extreme, destructive end. But in doing so, Burstein finds a co-conspirator of sorts in the American media. The excerpts from Vice, “Nightline” and CNN reports during McAfee’s time on the island all play into his rogue persona, one that afforded him a path to become a viable on-air contributor to cable news networks and normalize the uncertainties of his Belize past.
This film works best as an indictment of a sensationalist, tunnel-vision brand of media coverage that confuses eccentricity for legitimacy and eschews reporting in favor of the face-value testimony of a strong personality. Even if “Gringo” doesn’t always work as a fully focused portrait of McAfee’s past, it’s a necessary, effective reminder that blind faith can have dire consequences.
“Gringo” played at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere on Showtime on September 24 at 9:00 PM ET.