In WeCrashed, Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway become the latest to enter the world of ripped-from-the-headlines tech stories as they take on the roles of Adam and Rebekah Neumann, whose at-times incoherent vision helped make WeWork a name on everyone lips before everything came crashing down. A new trailer for the show, which premieres on March 18 on Apple TV Plus, captures the mania of the company’s skyrocket moment.
Full disclosure: from 2014 to 2015, I worked at WeWork in a low-level position where I encountered both Adam and Rebekah. In 2021 I briefly communicated over email with a writer and producer of WeCrashed, who wanted to know if I could confirm a story from 2017. I couldn’t, and that was the entirety of the interaction. But from personal experience, I can say that Leto and Hathaway are pretty convincing. Leto’s Israeli accent passes muster and his hair is the right length. (Neumann’s hair was crucial to his mythology, saying that as a long-haired Israeli, he had a resemblance to Jesus.) The early animations show what Neumann’s main power was: to make somebody believe in his vision, if only long enough for them to write a check.
WeCrashed will undoubtedly get into the sketchy economics on which Adam’s vision was based, as well as the debauchery of WeWork’s Summer Camp retreats (“debauchery,” in my personal experience, meant endless mimosas, a horrible Chainsmokers concert, a pretty good Weeknd concert, and more cocaine than I had ever seen). But WeCrashed also gives a finality to the story of Adam and Rebekah. The show was adapted from a podcast, and their story has also been turned into multiple podcasts, documentaries, and books, like The Cult of We by Eliot Brown and Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman. Now, the story has presumably reached its final form in a TV show.
It’s not the only one. This year’s Showtime miniseries Super Pumped is also stepping out of its cocoon of being a well-reported book by Mike Isaac and becoming a beautiful butterfly in the form of a show on Showtime, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt will take on the role of hard-charging former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
And then there’s Bad Blood, the 2018 book by John Carreyrou, arguably responsible for the current trend for exploring tech CEOs collapsing. While already the subject of a documentary, Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, recently convicted for federal fraud charges, will be the subject of not just one but two TV shows this years. There’s The Dropout on Hulu, featuring Amanda Seyfried and based on a podcast, and there’s also a straight adaptation of Bad Blood coming to Apple TV, directed by Adam McKay and starring Jennifer Lawrence, who is apparently already working on altering her voice for the role.
What’s behind this rash of CEOs acting badly on screen? A few things, not the least of which is the fact that CEOs have been acting very badly. As The Washington Post noted after a jury found Holmes guilty, America has “a history of building up its business leaders and tearing them down just as quickly when they’re accused of wrongdoing,” stretching from Enron to the 2008 financial crash, the latter of which has been covered in movies like Margin Call and The Big Short.
Turning real-life characters into fictionalized versions places unique constraints on their story. As YouTuber Patrick Willems discussed when looking at music biopics, putting a real person into a movie forces a narrative upon their life. The same can be said of a podcast or book, but both of those forms allow for a little more room to delve into complicated or contradictory details.
A podcast can have bonus episodes, a book can have footnotes, but there are no sidebars in visual narratives. The challenge is getting all the information on the screen while engaging the viewer. Adam McKay did so in The Big Short, and it will be up to these shows to do the same.
The market for these upcoming shows is most likely people who have heard about these stories yet never bothered reading into themselves, with a side helping of the people who have read deeply into these stories and want more of them. Of course, the people who haven’t been interested before might still be uninterested, and those who have learned about the chaos of tech might have already gotten their fill.
There’s also a risk of shows like WeCrashed and Super Pumped becoming interchangeable, with all of these charismatic CEOs blending together for one grift-filled stew. And for people who wanted to make their dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs once said, that might be the worst fate of all.