The Bill Gates focus series from Netflix are scattered and distracted

Software magnate Bill Gates is one of the most famous people in the world, but the public hardly knows him. Gates has been a household name for two decades, for two reasons: he was the face of Microsoft in an era when the company's products became ubiquitous and, perhaps more strikingly, he is very, very rich. Yet he has never been the kind of celebrity whose personal life and political opinions are scattered across gossip magazines and social media. And unlike the late Steve Jobs – his contemporary and occasional rival – Gates is rarely discussed in terms of unspeakable mysticism.


The title of the three-part Netflix documentary by Davis Guggenheim Inside Bill & # 39; s Brain: Bill Gates decoding (debuting on Friday, September 20) speaks about the opacity of the subject. What makes one of the richest people in the world ticking? What formed him? How did he come to dominate a fiercely competitive industry so thoroughly that the US government sued Microsoft under antitrust law?

Guggenheim deals with things like that. In the course of almost three hours In Bill & # 39; s Brain deals with the basics of Gates' life: his youth, education, stewardship at Microsoft, the marriage with his wife Melinda and the charity they manage together.

Sometimes it seems that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the real topic of this doc. Every episode of In Bill's brain focuses on one of the most important initiatives of the foundation: improvement of sewerage conditions in developing countries, eradication of polio and development of a cleaner, safer form of nuclear energy. Each of the three parts changes quickly between interviews, biographical material and fly-on-the-wall images of the philanthropic missions of the Gates team. Guggenheim shuns traditional transitions and instead jumps from topic to topic, even if there is no clear link between them.

The point is apparently to replicate Bill Gates's thought processes. After juggling for most of his adult life (and even part of his teenage years) with multiple complicated projects, Gates does not have the kind of spirit that works in neat, straight lines. At one point, Melinda even laughs at the title of this series and says that her husband's brain is just as messy and chaotic as the cheap apartment he once shared with Paul Allen when the two built Microsoft.

Photo by Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Guggenheim's approach is often frustrating. The director has several valuable stories to tell that can explain why In Bill's brain is released as a series instead of as a feature film. (Another reason: Netflix seems to prefer the multipart format to a single movie.) But when one of those stories begins to build a narrative momentum, the doc jumps to another, then to another, and then back again . In Bill's brain often feels more superficial than it actually is because it switches subjects so freely.

Considering what the title of the series promises, viewers can also be so disappointed that so much In Bill's brain is about his charity work, not about his life, personality or beliefs. But that is really not surprising for anyone familiar with the other Guggenheim documentaries. He won an Oscar for it An uncomfortable truth, his film about the efforts of former Vice President Al Gore to inform the world about climate change. He made too Waiting for Superman " on the shortcomings in the US public school system, and He called me Malala about Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel-praising Pakistani advocate for women's rights. Guggenheim has a history of using his work as a form of social advocacy.


He is also not disabled by complicated details. In Bill's brain risks losing the public with his first installment, which minimizes the Gates biography, and instead spends much of his life on different designs for better public toilets designed to improve the water supply in poorer villages and neighborhoods. The episode requires some fascination with plumbing and a high tolerance for faecal matter images – both in graphic video images and in the animated illustrations that Guggenheim uses in the series.

If Netflix subscribers only have time to view one In Bill's brain episode, they have to choose the second one that comes closest to some "decoding". The scenes about Gates' philanthropy largely take a back seat in mind about the most important decade of his life. In the 1970s, he and his classmate Paul Allen started making money with their programming skills and started talking about plans to develop software for the fast-growing PC market. Gates left Harvard in 1975 and was afraid that he would arrive late if he waited until he had graduated to launch Microsoft.

Photo by Saeed Adyani / Netflix

Part two of the Guggenheim documentary discusses Gates' supernatural urge to succeed, who, in Microsoft's early years, made him remember the license plate in the company's parking lot to keep track of who stayed late. (A veteran of that time remembers the ongoing joke that Microsoft jobs were & # 39; part-time & # 39; because employees could choose which 12 hours of the day they wanted to work.) Gates & # 39; obsessive work habits eventually caused a wedge between him and Allen, and the obvious regret he has about how that end to friendship works In Bill's brainAre more emotional moments.

The third episode could have used part of that emotion. The more biographical moments in part three are about how Bill and Melinda met and married and how Gates dealt with allegations that he had made Microsoft a monopoly. The billionaire is guarded much more in this series of interviews. He comes to life more in the other scenes of the episode, which have to do with potentially revolutionary ways to generate cheap energy.

Ultimately, Guggenheim fails to reconcile its competitive agendas: to take a close look at one of the most important cultural figures of this era and to describe all the ways in which Gates leaves a lasting, positive legacy. It does not help that the director puts so much of himself into the doc, so that his conversations with Gates resemble two lovable acquaintances that blow the wind, rather than as a journalist looking hard for meaningful answers.

In Bill's brain has some fleeting insights into who Gates is and what he has achieved – again, usually in episode two. But there is a moment in the series where Guggenheim and Gates talk about the periodic & # 39; think cultures & # 39; of the last one in which he goes off the schedule with a pile of books and tries to open himself to new ideas, largely unrelated to his daily work. A more targeted version of these focus series, with the same title and intentions, may have started here. Left alone with his thoughts, who is Bill Gates? Maybe a better documentary will answer that question one day.