Remember when just about every computer would come pre-installed with McAfee antivirus software? Perhaps you’ve already heard the crazy story of its outlandish inventor, but after watching Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, I don’t know how I hadn’t. John McAfee made his fortune from creating the first commercial antivirus software in the late 80s, and though he sold his stake in that company to Intel in 1994, the software still bore his name until 2014 when the events examined in this documentary caused them to rebrand.
Director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) at first paints a picture of what seems like your garden variety eccentric rich genius. After retiring from the computer security business, McAfee became a Yoga guru, writing several books on the subject and hosting free Yoga retreats. It was after he lost most of his fortune in the 2008 crash and moved to Belize that the real story began. Here McAfee lived like a Central American crime boss. He bought a huge compound, hired ex-cons as armed guards, buttered up local police, and kept multiple teenaged girlfriends. Fuelled by narcissism, hubris, and paranoia, McAfee used his money to wield power and intimidation over this small impoverished town before becoming a ‘person of interest’ in a murder case, forcing him to seek refuge in Guatemala.
A theme that Gringo shares with several other recent “true crime” docs like The Jinx and O.J. Simpson: Made in America is that people with enough money can get away with just about anything. Burstein mounts her own little investigation into the murder and creates a plausible case for how it likely went down. The strongest part of her film is the candid interviews she was able to get with McAfee’s former Belizean employees and girlfriends… suspiciously candid even. McAfee himself refused to appear on camera for the film but was apparently very receptive to emailing, often goading Burstein on, sometimes appearing angry at her questioning, and other times providing pretty straightforward answers, but always giving her lots to work with. He clearly loves the attention and implies that every story about him is one that he’s meticulously orchestrated. I don’t know how Burstein motivated the interview subjects to be so candid on camera, perhaps it was because they know McAfee can’t return to Belize, or maybe they’re still on his payroll and saying exactly what he wants them to, even if it’s not entirely flattering. This documentary paints a portrait of a monster, but he might love it.
As almost a postscript, McAfee has since regained legitimacy by returning to the tech game and even having a go at politics – he was almost the Libertarian party’s 2016 presidential candidate (next to McAfee, Trump actually seems like a reasonable person). He walks among us once again and this documentary won’t change that, it will only fuel the myths, which is probably okay by him.
Gringo is an enthralling story that hits every note, from humour to horror. Burstein teases out several moments of disbelief with this larger than life character. If the picture painted of John McAfee is accurate, he’s probably reading every review of this movie… in which case, Hi John! You really creeped me out in this, but I guess there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?