'Inside Bill's Brain: Decoding Bill Gates': TV Review | Telluride 2019

Telluride Film Festival
Thoughtful tribute to a rich man trying to make a difference.
9/20/2019

Oscar-winning documentary director Davis Guggenheim enlists Gates' cooperation for a three-part Netflix series on some of the billionaire's passion projects.

One of the hottest tickets at this year’s Telluride Film Festival was not one of the eagerly awaited narrative features but the first showing of a Netflix docuseries on Bill Gates. Patrons lined up for the screening of Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, with the subject himself on hand for a discussion. The series was directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, He Named Me Malala), and it contains some of the filmmaker’s best work.

No doubt Gates trusted the director enough to provide candid interviews on his personal life, along with information on his ambitious projects to use his wealth to build a better world. Although the docuseries does not skirt controversial episodes in Gates’ past, it gives him credit as a visionary thinker while also painting a surprisingly human portrait of the computer geek turned philanthropist and concerned citizen.

The three parts of the series encompass Gates’ efforts to provide clean drinking water for people in the poorest countries of the world, his battle to eradicate polio and his efforts on behalf of safe nuclear power as an alternative to climate-destroying fossil fuels. Along with exploring these potent issues, the film delves into Gates’ early family life and his marriage to Melinda, who is partnered with him on his charitable foundation, which he has focused on since stepping down from Microsoft in 2008.

Guggenheim collected an impressive group of pundits to discuss some of these issues, including scientists and technical experts, along with New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof, who provides especially pithy interviews. But the series also includes interviews with Melinda, Gates’ two sisters and, of course, extensive talks with Gates himself. Some of the most revealing interviews concern Gates’ relationship with his mother, a strong woman and something of a community leader in Seattle; he describes her early death as the most difficult time in his life.

Gates’ developing relationship with Melinda also provides fascinating material. Clearly Bill had difficulty entering into personal relationships, and when he was debating whether to marry Melinda, he prepared a detailed chart listing the pros and cons of a union. She has proven to be an invaluable partner; for one thing, he acknowledges that she is much better at dealing with people, a crucial quality in accomplishing the goals that he wants his charities to produce.

One of the thorniest of these issues is Gates’ commitment to nuclear power. As the film indicates, he and his team were making progress on changing public opinion until the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011 once again incited widespread fears. There are also issues regarding the disposal of nuclear waste, and Trump’s trade war with China has made Chinese cooperation on this project more challenging. 

The series is smoothly edited by Adrienne Gits and Brad Grossman, and animated sequences — which have become something of a staple of documentary films — are deftly integrated. News footage of the antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft reminds us of Gates’ contentious history, and it could be that the negative coverage he received influenced him to leave the corporate world (with his $58 billion fortune in tow) and use his money for a vast array of humanitarian projects.

There are no definitive answers to the problems that Gates wants to solve, but we come away from Inside Bill’s Brain admiring his efforts as well as his intelligence, and appreciating the humanity that some of Gates’ enemies have blithely ignored.

Production companies: Concordia Studio, Netflix
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Producer: Amanda Rohlke
Executive producers: Shannon Dill, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott
Director of photography: Clair Popkin
Editors: Adrienne Gits, Brad Grossman
Music: Dhani Harrison, Paul Hicks
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Premieres: Sept. 20 (Netflix)