Most anyone who has existed in America over the past few decades is familiar with Bill Nye: first as the zanily enthusiastic bowtie-wearing host of the children’s show Bill Nye the Science Guy on PBS and more recently as a passionate climate change bowtie-wearing educator for adults. The Bill Nye: Science Guy documentary sets out to draw the line between those two dots, painting a more complete picture of the man and his mission.
The movie begins with a look at the wildly successful PBS show, offering neat footage of the early-’90s series along with interviews with the two behind-the-scenes creators. From there, we delve into Nye’s family life and background, revealing, rather unsurprisingly, a theatrical nerd with a passion for education and advocacy.
The film also covers his long history of head-butting with creationists and climate-deniers, from creationist museum CEO Ken Ham to Fox News talking head and climate denier Joe Bastardi. The filmmakers do a commendable job of both showing Nye’s commitment to defending science as well as his slightly problematic need for the spotlight, even when it gives the spotlight to those who might not deserve it.
The most surprising segment comes when the filmmakers visit the Planetary Society, where Nye, the CEO of the nonprofit organization, is working to complete the dream of his former teacher and mentor Carl Sagan to launch a working solar sail. Here, we see Nye at his most determined and emotional. We also see him fully evolved: He’s no longer just a science educator, he’s an active member of the community, dedicated to forwarding what we know, literally to the outer reaches of the universe.
The documentary is not as moving or revelatory as similar recent living biography-style films, like Roger Ebert’s Life Itself. In fact, during the segment where Nye visits fellow science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s hard not to want to watch a documentary about the eloquent, scene-stealing Tyson instead of Nye. But the movie is interesting and pleasing, even if you didn’t watch the original, Emmy-laden Science Guy series as a kid.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is how it explores what happens when you are forever attached to a television personality of the same name: What is life like over the years and decades when no one quite understands where Bill Nye the Science Guy starts and Bill Nye the regular guy ends. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, of course, but the movie captures the moments where they are distinct, like when Nye admits that he’s spent his life unmarried because of intimacy problems, or when he talks about the genetic disorder that runs in his family that has stopped him from having children.
Nye is also touchy about one fact about him that is often repeated by his (and science’s) detractors: He doesn’t have a doctorate or a master’s degree, “only” a BS in mechanical engineering from Cornell University. It’s a fact that seems unimportant to those who understand that he’s an ambassador more than anything else, but you can tell it stings him. If anything, though, it shows how supporters of science, as much as scientists, can help us continue to learn.
During one segment, Nye visits a group of scientists studying climate change on a glacier in Greenland. Here, Nye is completely in his element: learning about ice core studies directly from researchers, asking questions, deeply curious. Really, it’s the segment that looks most like an original Bill Nye the Science Guy episode, and all at once, you can see how he rose to fame and why we’re still listening.
Bill Nye: Science Guy screens as part of the Big Sky Film Series at the MCT Center for Performing Arts Thu., Nov. 9, at 7 PM. A discussion with a special panel of climate specialists follows. Free.