Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets 5 stars for charm in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the morally-dubious founder of Uber in limited series Super Pumped: The Battle for Uberstream it on Neon from February 28. The story of Uber – and particularly its founder – is a near-perfect illustration of people for whom the ends justify any means, writes Daniel Rutledge.

Travis Kalanick is an archetypal villain in the modern tech startup world. He founded an amazing, revolutionary app that has been extraordinarily successful, and is valuable and convenient for its millions of users around the globe; but he did so in a way so outrageously unethical it can only really inspire disgust.

He’s the ideal first main character for an anthology TV series (from the makers of Billions) in which each season will “explore a story that rocked the business world to its core and changed culture”.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the ideal man to play him, too. His boyish good looks and oozy charm are, I imagine, very similar to the traits Kalanick exploited while enchanting investors and relentlessly pursuing success. One of the smartest decisions made by the folks behind Super Pumped was to hone in on Kalanick’s relationship with venture capitalist Bill Gurley, casting Kyle Chandler in that role. The interplay between these two speaks volumes about the crazy world in which they inhabit, with Gurley attempting to tame the Kalanick storm just enough to where it would still succeed but without destroying too much. Chandler brings a stoic, Texan respectableness to the role, emanating the sort of honour among thieves Gurley struggles to instil in the young Uber founder.

Elsewhere, Uma Thurman makes a welcome appearance—as Huffington Post co-founder and Uber board member Arianna Huffington, no less—allowing Thurman to channel what she describes as her curiosity, respect, and awe towards Arianna. Not only that, but have a reunion of sorts with her Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino, who narrates the series.

Kalanick is a quintessentially brilliant yet unscrupulous tech-bro, more so than the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or even Elon Musk. His unbelievably reckless disregard for the law and blatant misogyny make him arguably a more loathsome creature than them, despite Uber being less responsible for worrying stuff like, y’know, the ruining of democracy and making most well-minded people in the West at least question the value of “free speech” in an age where disinformation is so rampant it’s literally causing scores of deaths every day.

But I digress.

Exactly where on the evil scale Uber sits doesn’t matter as its story—particularly Kalanick’s story—is a near-perfect illustration of how for these beings the ends justify any means. For them, it doesn’t matter how many people have to suffer or what laws have to be broken, so long as the billions pile up at the end. It’s also a finite story—unlike the ongoing stories of Facebook, Google and YouTube, Amazon et al, Kalanick’s fall from Uber is very well documented and irreversible, thus making for a more satisfying season of television.

Musk and Zuckerberg (or ‘Zuck’) are name-checked often in Super Pumped, as is Jeff Bezos and a few of the other ultimate masters of modern capitalism. Others like Google bosses Larry Page and Sergey Brin, along with Apple boss Tim Cook, are actual characters, fittingly, as they were crucial characters in the outrageous and unfortunately true story of Kalanick.

He idolises those Silicon Valley icons, of course, in the wrongheaded way every energy drink-swilling crypto enthusiast does. Early in Super Pumped, Kalanick refers to Bezos, Musk and Zuck as “kings”, then corrects himself, calling them “gods”. It’s this quasi-religious fanaticism about becoming a billionaire that drives Kalanick and he flagrantly uses the stories of those Big Tech ‘gods’ as his own playbook. Uber wasn’t even his first go at it—he tried some peer-to-peer transfer schemes that failed before he landed on the ride-sharing software that earned him untold millions in venture capital and subsequently the billions he’d lusted after for years.

But at what cost?

“I’m a disruptor,” he says a few times in the show. “Sometimes that means being a devious motherf—” he adds one of those times. Well, devious is a very charitable way of putting it. This is a nasty, ruthless, Trumpian businessman who is makes for compelling viewing in that way where you feel an intense dislike for him boiling up inside you as you’re watching. The Mike Isaac book on which this is based has more time to explain why Kalanick is the way he is that may make him more sympathetic. Not so on the screen.

Despite how charming Gordon-Levitt is, it’s often hard to feel much more than hate for the character he’s depicting here. When Kalanick hears an Uber driver murdered a child, his first response is how it’s going to be a big problem for him. When even some of his most indoctrinated enablers raise eyebrows he qualifies—he means a big problem for Uber, the company, of course! Oh and yes, after a little pause he admits it’ll “suck” for the family of the dead kid, too.

And yet, this man won. Even though he ultimately lost, he still won. He was forced out of Uber with his tail between his legs, but as he went he was allowed to sell about 90% of his shares which scored him US$2.6 billion—more than 3000 times the average net worth of your bog-standard American. Plus, even after all his revolting behaviour, he still has some ownership of the company, which should make you feel dirty every time you use the app.

When Kalanick is alerted to Uber’s relaxed security checks leading to a spate of murder robberies of drivers in Brazil, he shrugs it off. Brazil is a violent country, right? What about all the regular taxi drivers who get murdered there anyway? Plus it has a large population—so there’s plenty of other people who could be Uber drivers there, just throw them a few more bucks. But after a lot of pleading from investors, he begrudgingly add some extra safety features to stop people being murdered. What a prick.

And yet, this man won.

When Kalanick is confided in by one of his most valuable workers who was crucial to Uber’s success that she has been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, he acts pissed off, but then does nothing. As more and more women speak out about the unbelievably gross dude-bro culture at Uber (or “boober” as Kalanick once put it), all of them are ignored or pushed out for daring to be such negative complainers. It’s despicable.

And yet, this man won.

Of course, some people will misread Super Pumped and look up to Kalanick in the same way they did criminal scumbag Jordan Belfort after Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Wolf of Wall Street. Both these guys had spectacular falls from grace, but they still both made it and at least for a time lived the lavish lives of extreme luxury many people fantasise. Sure, Donald Trump was the first US President to be impeached twice for reprehensible behaviour, but he was still able to become US President after living a life of fraud, bullying and cheating.

The stories of how these people achieved unprecedented success are always interesting and can be more captivating when they’re such odious characters. And when they’ve made as big an impact on the world as someone like Kalanick has, well, that’s a story that is definitely worth checking out.