Built up, taken down: 'WeCrashed' and the current class of CEO sagas

'The Social Network' helped usher in a new era of CEO rise-and-fall stories, which is currently cresting with a handful of new projects.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

"A million dollars isn't cool," Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) says to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in 2010's "The Social Network." "You know what's cool?" he asks, and if you swap that M before million for a B, you get your answer. 

These days, even a billion dollars isn't all that cool. In "WeCrashed," the story of WeWork founder Adam Neumann, much bigger numbers are thrown around with abandon: at one turning point, his shared workspace company gets an infusion of cash of $4.4 billion, and later he's chasing a valuation of $33 trillion. That's with a T. And an R. 

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in "WeCrashed."

"WeCrashed" is the latest ripped-from-the-headlines — or taken from the apps on your phone — story of a modern CEO's rise and fall, a genre which, although we didn't know it at the time, was ushered into the present by "The Social Network."

Along with "WeCrashed," which launched Friday on Apple TV+ and stars Jared Leto as Neumann and Anne Hathaway as his wife, Rebekah Paltrow, there's also "Super Pumped," Showtime's saga of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and "The Dropout," Hulu's story of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (starring Amanda Seyfried). 

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Cast the net a bit wider and "Inventing Anna," the Netflix hit about phony German heiress Anna Sorokin, can also be thrown into this genre, as can "Fyre Fraud" and "Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened," the dueling documentaries about the crash and burn of 2017's Fyre Festival and its con artist founder Billy McFarland.  

These shows proliferate because of our fascination with success stories, all the better when they're mixed with vicious teardowns, along with the blinding allure of big, big money. We all like to think we're one idea away from hitting pay dirt, and these stories are cautionary tales about that starry-eyed dream. And we also have an intense love-hate relationship with the superrich, and we cherish building them up as much as we relish watching them fall.   

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network."

These stories are so content rich that they play across multiple mediums. "WeCrashed" follows the 2021 documentary "WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn," and is based on the podcast "WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork." Theranos' Holmes was also the subject of John Carreyrou's book "Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup" as well as the HBO documentary "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley." "Super Pumped" is based on a 2019 book of the same name.  

So we get to read about, listen to and watch the vanquishing of these flawed dreamers, some of whom are legitimate criminals: Holmes and McFarland were both convicted of fraud, and Sorokin of theft. WeWork's Neumann's crime was hubris, and getting too big, too fast. 

Neumann is an Israeli-born New Yorker who wanted to get filthy, fabulously rich, he just didn't know how he was going to do it. He starts out selling onesies for babies and later pivots to collapsible women's heels, but becomes a real estate guru when he enters the world of shared workspaces. Played by Leto, who attacks the role with wide-eyed hysteria, he's a slick-talking, wildly charismatic, self-professed "serial entrepreneur" who simply refuses to take no for an answer. His theme song is "Roar" by Katy Perry. 

For him, the world is full of infinite opportunity, because that's the world that Zuckerberg (and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Apple's Steve Jobs) brought to the fore. Today's class of internet and tech billionaires are more visible than the big timers of yesteryear — partially because they all seem to be building rockets and going to space — and the possibilities of the internet have opened up the world to anyone bold enough to stake their claim on the American dream. But it's not that easy, as "WeCrashed" and the others show.  

So what's next? In the wake of his death in 2011, there were a pair movies on the life of Jobs (neither were great, but 2015's Danny Boyle-directed "Steve Jobs" runs circles around 2013's Ashton Kutcher-starring "Jobs"), and we likely won't have to wait that long to see a movie about, say, Tesla's Elon Musk, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey or Amazon's Bezos. (Stanley Tucci as Jeff Bezos, we can see it now...) 

And as long as there are startups that take the world by storm, there will continue to be stories about those that get too big, too fast and take a hard tumble. Let's just hope the dollar figures don't get any bigger. What even comes after trillion?