Inside Bill's Brain review: Netflix docu series focuses more on Gates Foundation and less on Microsoft co-founder
Netflix docu-series Inside Bill's Brain does more than enough justice to the trajectory of Gates' life following his exit from Microsoft in 2008.
Bill Gates is perhaps one of the most well-known people in the world and yet little is known about this phenomenal businessman's elusive personal life.
So, when the title of a docuseries promises a journey "inside Bill's Brain", one looks forward to deciphering his thinking process. In the hands of a deft director like Davis Guggenheim, Netflix's Inside Bill's Brain does more than enough justice to the trajectory of Gates' life following his exit from Microsoft in 2008 and his focus to bring about change through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But where it is found wanting is in its exploration of his personal beliefs, ideas and decision making process.
Not unlike Guggenheim's previous works, particularly his Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, that highlights the grave concerns of climate change and global warming, Inside Bill's Brain too, gravitates largely towards the issues tackled by Gates' foundation such as its effort to implement better sewage disposal systems, eradicate polio and developing a system that uses safer nuclear power for harnessing energy. Through it all, the documentary barely scratches the surface of what makes Gates tick, so much so that a few minutes into the first episode it almost appears like an advertorial and a propaganda clip created especially for the benefit of potential donors who might want to invest into the organisation.
However, there is an attempt to catch those brief, unguarded moments in which we are able to discern how 'Bill' perceives himself. In the first episode, Gates suggests that while he knew he was a smart kid, good at math, it wasn't until he won a state-level mathematics contest that he figured out he might actually possess above-average intellect. But the innocence of this moment is compromised somewhere when the director takes it upon himself to point out, almost as though he were convincing a thoroughly unaware child, that he possess extraordinary abilities. Let's face it, Gates is anything but unaware of his awesomeness.
Alternating between the Harvard-dropout's childhood, his relationship with his mother (discussed in some detail by his sisters) and his foundation's drive to build a sewage disposal system, episode one makes much of graphics and catchy animated illustrations to develop two parallel stories and the multiple elements of each of these ideas.
The tactic of quickly switching from one to the other, like flipping back and forth in a picture book almost ingeniously takes us into Bill's brain, one, that as a friend of his suggests in the series, is simultaneously learning and processing. And if that's not apparent, the viewer is at the very least, able to glean what happens to poop after it is flushed out of the toilet. What's transparent however, is Gates' drive and his will to get things done such as organising the 'Build A Toilet' contest in order to get people to contribute towards the effort of building a feasible sewage treatment plant.
Guggenheim, who has also directed documentaries such as He Named Me Malala and Waiting For "Superman" also poses some hard questions to the millionaire. He wants to know what Gates makes of the popular opinion that he was perceived as arrogant and the veracity of the antitrust suit. Doubtless, he is met with evasive replies: if a 25-26 year old man was running a company with over 100-something employees, he could be perceived as arrogant.
One of the more interesting pieces in the documentary is Gates' "think week." It is the time when he shuts off from the world, and simply reads and processes. Known to have read the most tedious volumes on environment, public policy, budget and planning, the director in fact notes that when he 'first met Bill, he was in the middle of reading state budgets.'
During this think week — armed with a bag full of hefty titles by erudite scholars on myriad subjects, which can hardly be fascinating for even the most avid readers — he disappears into his own mind. Where the documentary perhaps falls short is in not taking a peek into what happens when Bill processes.
We are told that when he stills himself, he is able to just see things that others probably cannot conceive of. The question that remains unanswered is 'how'?
In the documentary, Melinda opines that she would rather not be in Bill's brain, there is just too much going on there, it is too complex. The documentary only touches the first couple of layers of this complexity. If nothing else, that bag full of books which is a wonderfully alluring part of the series, it is part of every episode and reveals much of the study behind everything Gates does.
The series also mentions in part the problems encountered in each of his endeavours: such as the expense of setting up the sewage plants, the fallout between America and China over trade that stumped the plans for setting up the nuclear plant in Asia and the reported rise in polio cases in spite of Gates' efforts. The director wants to know if the sixty-three-year-old has taken on too much through his will to save the world.
It does call into question if he has in fact bitten off more than he can chew, if there are things in the world that are larger than life: larger than life even for Bill Gates.
Watch the trailer here:
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in his early career monitored employees' work hours by memorising their license plates to keep a track of them. Gates, who is now co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, described his intense management style from Microsoft's early days during an interview to BBC Radio.
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