A certain type of documentary has grown in prevalence and popularity lately — the piece that marshals evidence in service of the case that a very widely known contemporary figure is actually even greater than one had previously thought. The vogue began in summer 2018 with the features “RBG” (about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (about children’s television personality Fred Rogers) and has continued with documentaries about figures as varied as Toni Morrison, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Luciano Pavarotti — and now, in Netflix’s three-episode documentary series “Inside Bill’s Brain,” Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Shepherded by Davis Guggenheim (an Oscar-winner for “An Inconvenient Truth”), we’re walked through the tech founder and humanitarian’s personal history in a manner that grows stultifying the more praise gets ladled on. It’s not that Gates’s current endeavors don’t merit attention and applause: It’s that very little in human experience merits quite so uncritical a gaze.
This latest entry in the celebrity-hagiography file has all the hallmarks of its genre. We are given the appearance of access to a figure more iconic than deeply known, both through archival footage and through interviews. Friends and contemporaries show up to deliver testimonials. And there’s a big, underlined theme: That Gates’s brain, per the title, is a unique and precious thing we are lucky to have in our time, even if understanding its workings is a bit beyond us.
A lot of the work towards that theme is tiresome and, frankly, a bit unbecoming as a way to depict a very successful person in his 60s. A fellow credited onscreen as a former marketing director of Microsoft tells us that “he reads really fast and synthesizes really well. The most amazing thing is, he almost always knows more than the other person he’s talking to about whatever it is, it’s unbelievable.” Gates is an eminence, not a precocious youth, and the report-card retelling that he’s a quick thinker is unnecessary given his successes. Being told, at some length, that he can read quickly and on serious matters is a bit past the point. Worse, the access to Gates himself is illusory. Gates, not in a particularly reflective mood and hardly pushed towards openness by his interlocutor, grudgingly fields opening questions about his favorite animal and, even when the questions get a bit harder, is easily left off the hook. In the documentary’s final minutes, Guggenheim asks Gates about his philanthropic attempts to solve public health crises: “Last question, and I’m going to be tough on you: Is there a part when you say, ‘this is way too hard, I took on too much, I quit’?” Gates, a recessive presence onscreen who gives the director just what he asks for and not a whit more, doesn’t have to deliver the job-interview cliché that his greatest flaw is that he’s a hard worker. Guggenheim does it for him. Elsewhere, the question of his strained relationship with late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is treated by the film but only glanced at in the time Guggenheim and Gates share on-camera.
The documentary might inoculate itself against charges of being quite so in the bag for its subject were it a bit more serious about the aspects of Bill’s brain that are less easily lauded: his notorious competitiveness and the ways in which it expressed itself, for instance. The U.S. government’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft is broached in the film’s final 10 minutes; we’re told Gates cried at the case’s conclusion given that he felt “vindicated.” In the scope of his life, the means by which Gates’s company was alleged to have stifled competition unfairly is almost certainly a less important story than his vast outlays of time, resources, and creativity on charitable endeavors. But it might, maybe, be more revealing of the character and soul of the man than the fact that he reads fast and well.
In all, “Inside Bill’s Brain” sheds light on that which Gates does, from the prosaic (reading) to the grand-scale (seeking to eliminate preventable death due to disease). But it, contrary to its title, has little insight into the person that he is. It knows, merely, that he is great. And given the three-hour investment of time one is asked to make here, that’s not nearly enough.
“Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” Netflix. Sept. 20. Three episodes (all screened for review).
Executive Producers: Davis Guggenheim, Shannon Dill, Jonathan Silberberg, and Nicole Stott