For those who remember it, the story of WeWork and its founder, Adam Neumann, will go down in infamy. The elevator pitch is simple. A charismatic startup founder with promises of revolutionizing the workplace builds a company worth 47 billion dollars. Fast forward a few years, and his deceptive mismanagement reduces the business to cinders. Now, less than two years later, Hulu has mythologized this collapse in its new documentary, WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
To the movie’s credit, the story of WeWork and Adam Neumann is an enthralling one. The film moves at a fast clip, telling the company’s story and addressing its founder’s eccentricities to hilarious effect. All things considered, WeWork’s monumental rise and fall makes for an exciting watch. And it’s in the contours of Neumann’s decline where the documentary can shine. Put simply, WeWork is at its best when it sits back and lets you appreciate the ridiculous story it has to tell.
But for all the movie’s entertainment value, it falls short in a few key areas. For one thing, the film’s scope is too centered on Neumann, himself. A tight focus has its benefits, but the movie rarely turns its attention to the landscape WeWork emerged from. As a result, it offers little insight on the startup’s employees and its influence on the wider market. As Elizabeth Lopatto of The Verge¹ writes: “The problem of making a documentary about a showman is that it’s hard not to be ensnared by him.”
This limited frame of reference belies a kind of defensiveness. When watching the film, it’s hard not to get the impression that its creators worried about the kinds of questions viewers might ask. Because while WeWork gestures toward certain economic trends and tech CEOs’ utopian promises, it doesn’t have much to say about them. This omission frames WeWork as an aberration of the marketplace, not a product of it. It’s a lamentable conclusion, considering just how many grifters like Neumann there are.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance of aversion to difficult questions. Case and point: because WeWork is about a company that promised to unite its workers into a progressive collective, it’s strange that no one ever mentions union politics. This is especially odd given WeWork’s troubling history of union entanglements². Whether or not you support unions, these omissions highlight the filmmaker’s myriad blind spots.
In all fairness, the movie does run with its themes of collectivization, but it fumbles the landing. The final shots, depicting interviewees with face masks during the pandemic, suggest that workers need unity now more than ever. It’s a good sentiment, but it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film’s material. Not does this inclusion edify how workers ought to come together. For anyone who comes to WeWork for some corporate Schadenfreude, this won’t hamper the experience. But when assessed as a documentary, these flaws demand attention.
In the end, a great documentary has to do more than relay facts. The genre’s best works leave their viewers with more questions than answers, trusting them to dive headlong into these problems themselves. But WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn seems downright terrified of this. The film provides solid entertainment for its two-hour runtime, but viewers who want more to chew on should turn elsewhere.