In 2007, Slate’s Jessica Winter wrote a piece making the point that Gordon Gekko, the antagonist of the film Wall Street, became a folk hero for bankers, to the point that they even started dressing like him. In theory, he shouldn’t have been; he was the villain of that movie, he hurt people without remorse, and his “greed is good” mantra ultimately led to his downfall. The problem was that his energy, confidence, and power were irresistible. Even if you’re not on Wall Street, even if you hate the idea of Gekko and people like him, you can appreciate the allure; whatever the moral lesson of Oliver Stone’s film, Gekko is the really memorable figure, the successful sociopath who is so big that he’s bound to either disgust you or draw you in.
That may be the archetypical example of a thriving capitalist depicted in film or television whose charisma accidentally outweighs whatever moral the artist is trying to communicate, but it’s far from the only one. Examples abound in the world of organized crime, but you don’t need to leave the board room or the balance sheet; from blockbusters like the The Wolf of Wall Street to Apple TV+’s underrated Physical, it’s a genre unto itself. The sociopath CEO is our version of the Greek gods, to be worshiped despite—and somewhat because of—their flaws.
The fundamental problem (if you agree that it’s a problem) is that even when the directors have their heads screwed on straight ethically, and are determined to make their protagonists pay for their immorality, every good storyteller understands it’s the dramatic elements that are most likely to draw our attention. Comeuppance can be satisfying, but we know all too well that unrepentant capitalists in real life often face very little or no accountability, and depictions of a downfall ring appropriately hollow. Instead, creators lean into the exciting part of the story—the heady rise, the sheer bravado of the hero, the obstacle-laden, thrilling ride on the waves of profit.
Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, the story of WeWork founder Adam Neumann (Jared Leto) and his wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway), falls all too neatly into this history. The real story of Neumann is fascinating in the details, but a little mundane in the broad scope. Neumann, an Israeli businessman, was a “serial entrepreneur,” and had his really great idea with WeWork, a co-working model, after several flops. This wasn’t a new idea, but he was more enterprising and ambitious than anyone else in that corner of the market, and after founding the company in 2010, it wasn’t long before WeWork surpassed $2 billion in annual revenue, expanded across the globe, and became the darling of all start-ups. He was a classic modern magnate, right down to his talk of living forever, becoming a trillionaire, the Prime Minister of Israel, and on and on. Then the problems hit. It turned out that WeWork, despite revenues, had trouble turning a profit, and that Neumann was engaging in shady practices like borrowing against his own stock and leasing his own properties to the company. The prevalence of alcohol also created a toxic environment in which allegations of sexual assault were ignored, and both Neumann and Rebekah were impulsive decision-makers who would make moves like firing an employee minutes after meeting them because they didn’t like their energy.
In the end, he was forced to resign his position, but floated off on a golden parachute worth $1.7 billion, and now buys up real estate.
There is, frankly, no other way to turn that story into a season of television without going down the “attractive antihero” route. That’s exactly what Apple TV+ does, and they do it fairly well. Leto is electric as Neumann, a force of nature with so much inner drive that he’s bound to succeed in a capitalistic world, and Hathaway is somewhere beyond brilliant as Rebekah, effectively capturing a too-recognizable modern version of narcissism, aimlessness, and insecurity that is underscored by the cushion of extreme wealth. (In other words, she would have been right at home in HBO’s The White Lotus.)
You know how this goes; these are extremely flawed people, a little bit despicable as viewed from afar, but the momentum of the show forces you to root for them. Leto and Hathaway are magnetic, and since nobody wants to spend an hour of television viewing listening to a lecture, we’re instead treated to the thrill of their escapades as they make their gravity-defying ascent. In moments of doubt, like when Neumann stands in the midst of a filthy warehouse and wonders if he’s about to go broke, the solution is glib; Rebekah approaches, sternly demanding he recover his bravado, and gives an impromptu handjob to make her point. We’re treated over and over to the lessons of power, and charisma, and the value of sheer confidence in moments when the abyss opens up beneath you. Believe hard enough, and there is no abyss.
So, yes, you’ll have fun watching WeCrashed, even if the rhythms of the story are a little cliched. I did. My problem, and I fully admit that it’s a Debbie Downer of a problem, is that yet again we are elevating some truly godforsaken people onto a podium for the sake of a story. In real life, the Neumanns are egotists, and while I don’t doubt that Adam, at least, appealed to a certain demographic of people in much the same way that a cult leader appeals, what we see in the show is not what happened in the world. If this sounds like railing against the concept of artistic license, maybe in some limited way it is. Shows like these can’t resist the slight but ultimately critical fictions—Neumann’s essential kindness, Rebekah’s quiet moments of dignity and love—because if we didn’t have those fictions, we simply wouldn’t like these people enough to watch. Even if they get around to the truth eventually, we’ve still been thoroughly Gekko’d, and will remember the drunken highs more than the comedown.
Every human being deserves sympathy on some level, but sometimes a viper is a viper, and though it may be a bit prudish to say out loud, maybe anti-heroes should be left to the realm of fiction or even history, where we can safely enjoy their reckless rush to the top and take or leave the lessons of the crash. Failing that, creators are too often lured into the trap of rehabilitating those who don’t deserve it.
WeCrashed premieres Friday, March 18th on Apple TV+
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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