By Mie Astrup Jensen.
Most people are familiar with some of Bill Gates’ work. The word processor I am currently using to write this review, for example, is developed by Microsoft, and millions of people have Windows, phones, tablets, and computers. In essence, we all have been affected by the work of Bill Gates. Still, Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates (2019) aims to show a different person than solely the businessman we all know.
The docuseries, directed by Oscar-winning documentary director Davis Guggenheim, consists of three episodes, with each focusing on his global visions. The first focuses on providing clean water and innovative toilet facilities for people in the poorest countries of the world; the second centres around his battle to eradicate polio; and the third concentrates on making nuclear power stations safe, so that they can become an alternative energy source.
The docuseries takes a ping-pong approach by using flashbacks – including pictures, home videos, and animation clips – as well as his current work. This is the essence of the series: Bill’s complex brain never rests, so a documentary about him cannot do so either. At times, this can be confusing as it moves across time, space, and format, but it becomes clear that it is the director’s intention to depict Gates’ constant thought processes.
Moreover, the series also touches upon on his partnerships – this includes his parents and siblings, his wife Melinda (co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), his colleagues, and his partnerships with innovators for his projects. Notably, Bill discusses his relationship to his mother at length. She was a community organiser, and knew he was very introverted. Bill explains how she engineered social encounters by, for example, making him the greeter at charity events – an experience that was invaluable in becoming a businessman and developing as a philanthropist.
Additionally, through his wife, we learn that Bill was frantic about his work. He thought about Microsoft 24/7/365. Melinda, who worked for Microsoft as one of the few women at the company, explains that after they had dated for a while, he made a list of the pros and cons of getting married because he was so invested in his work.
Furthermore, we frequently see him in his personal library – what looks like any booklover’s dream – flicking through volumes of books on deeply technical matters. His colleagues mention his ‘think weeks’ and refer to him as a ‘multi-processor’. During these weeks he goes to a cabin to read and think. Often, he reads 15 books during a vacation.
Gates frequently mentions scientific reports and statistics, but what repeatedly strikes the viewer as more fascinating is his personal life. Namely, what captures the viewer’s attention are the anecdotes that his family tell; his childhood holidays that focused on sports and exercise, his school time, and the way his career essentially started because his teachers asked him to timetable the students’ classes, which he then coded. Then, his stories about how customers reacted when they saw a young person code their products, and so on, equally fascinate the viewers. That is exactly what brings entertainment.
However, notable problems exist. At times, it is difficult to uncover whether the director barely humanises Bill because he wishes to portray him as a CPU, or whether he simply couldn’t get close enough to him. The director humanises other participants, such as Melinda who certainly provides a human perspective of him. For instance, she recalls when they had children and she was alone in their enormous home, and she felt unsafe since he was always at work. One night, she expressed her feelings, and he decided to start the Foundation as a partnership where they were equal – yet, the show could have depicted their equal partnership more. It is noteworthy, however, that this does not account for the troublesome period in Microsoft at the time. Moreover, while other people continuously refer to him as being emotional and sensitive, the audience sees a rational thinker who juggles multiple projects. Evidently, we see his brain rather than him as a person.
As much as his work to improve global health is admirable, Bill directly states that he does not do it to be inspiring; rather, he does it for optimisation. Yet, unlike some other billionaires who support innovative projects, Bill educates himself on the matter and asks his research teams difficult questions. Still, the director could have posed the relevant questions such as, ‘should charities be privatised?’, ‘what are the consequences of the billionaires controlling what receives funding and not, in the context of global health?’, and ‘why these projects and not others?’
In essence, the docuseries portrays a highly intelligent and successful man – both in the tech-world and with the global health projects. A man who is conscious of the fact that he became successful because he was privileged since his family was well-off. But after watching it, the viewer might have more questions than answers. After having spent two years with him, one wonders if it is because Bill is too private, or because he is so complex, that the average viewer will not be able to comprehend him neither as a person nor for his mind. Instead, it often seems like the Foundation is the real subject of the documentary. Nevertheless, this is an interesting docuseries that teaches the viewer about a man who is more than the Microsoft brand.