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In his relentless pursuit to try to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems around sanitation, disease eradication and climate change, Bill Gates is practically robotic in his quest for information and in his inability to give up. It’s glimpses of the Microsoft co-founder’s human side that help power “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates,” a three-part documentary series from Netflix.
Directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), the series is at times an intimate and revealing look at Gates’ life, from his upbringing to his education, his family and friendships, the drive to make Microsoft a global powerhouse, the transition to philanthropy, and his love for and partnership with wife Melinda Gates.
For those familiar with many of the benchmarks and anecdotes from Gates’ long life in the public eye, there are repeated tales of his accomplishments and idiosyncrasies. They are spliced throughout three 50-minute episodes with footage from his home and offices in Seattle to far-flung locations around the planet.
Stories from his two sisters, his wife, current and former co-workers, friends, and the voice of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen are used to illustrate what many think they know when it comes to what is going on “Inside Bill’s Brain.”
The series will be released on Netflix on Friday. Here’s the trailer, followed by recaps of the three parts, which GeekWire watched this week:
If you think you do a pretty good job of staying up on your reading, watching this television show is gonna sting a bit. But keep reading here, at least, because it’s not normal to consume information the way Bill’s brain does.
Books are a constant in Guggenheim’s documentation, whether we’re inside the Gates family’s home library or watching Gates lug a stuffed tote bag everywhere he goes. That bag, by the way, is washed and reloaded weekly, we learn.
“I’ve been with him on vacation and he’ll read 14 books,” friend Bernie Noe recalled. “That’s a gift, to read 150 pages an hour. I’m gonna say it’s 90 percent retention. Kind of extraordinary.”
His sister Libby McPhee remembered thinking he was “kind of weird” and was always locked in his messy, book-strewn room for hours as a kid.
“I think left to his own devices he might have stayed in his room and read books all day long,” she said.
It’s all part of the portrait of Gates’ early childhood, and the push/pull between his own desire to consume information with the desires of his mother that he be more social. When asked about the worst day of his life, tears well in Gates’ eyes when he recalls the day his mother died.
His well-to-do upbringing, viewed through home movies, is juxtaposed against the struggles of children in the developing world today. Gates’ fascination with sanitation and his quest to reinvent the toilet have been well documented. “Inside Bill’s Brain” doesn’t shy from the shitty reality of what people are up against, either.
Again, reading comes into focus. A New York Times article by Nick Kristof, on the deaths of children caused by unsanitary water, is credited with changing the course of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and putting the focus on global health.
“This article was quickly forgotten, except that it had a couple of important readers in Seattle,” Kristof said.
Other great quotes:
- “He is on time to the minute, every single meeting without fail. Time is the one commodity that he can’t buy more of. It’s a limited resource. It’s finite. He’s got the same 24 hours in a day that the rest of us have.” — Lauren Jiloty, Gates Ventures.
- “I’ve never heard him complain about [Melinda]. He’s the only person on this earth who I’ve never heard complain about his wife.” — Mike Slade, one-time Microsoft marketing chief.
- “She never thought my table manners were perfect. I don’t think I’ve solved that. So she’d still have things that she’d encourage me to do better on.” — Bill Gates, on his mother.
When Melinda Gates was told the series is called “Inside Bill’s Brain” she couldn’t stop laughing. When asked why, she said, “Because it’s chaos! I wouldn’t want to be in that brain. There is so much going on all the time. It’s unbelievable.”
Part of filling that brain comes from Gates’ longtime practice of engaging in “think week” at his home on Washington’s Hood Canal. Books may fill his brain, but Diet Coke fuels the rest of his system.
Gates’ brain is compared to a computer’s central processing unit, and his time away from all other obligations, to read and do critical thinking, is also called “CPU time.”
“As I’ve gotten to know bill in this phase of his life, it seems like he’s turned his whole life into one long, continuous think week,” Guggenheim said.
The philanthropic focus of this episode is on disease eradication and polio specifically, and the billions spent by the Gates Foundation on this challenging pursuit.
Life-shaping friendships also come into view, including Lakeside School relationships with Kent Evans and Paul Allen and Gates’ immersion into computer programming with his classmates. His later and ongoing connection to billionaire investor Warren Buffett is also celebrated.
“Paul was certainly cooler than I was,” Gates said of Allen, recalling Allen’s interest in science fiction and guitar. He recounted their work as youngsters writing a scheduling program for Lakeside’s entire student body and how that led to other work.
They moved to Vancouver, Wash., together for a job and in one of the series’ more fun moments, Gates recalled seeing the 1972 blaxploitation film “Super Fly” with Allen — “we were the whitest guys ever!” — as well as another classic.
PREVIOUSLY: Bill Gates patched things up with Paul Allen, hoped to travel the world with Microsoft co-founder
“We went to see ‘Taxi Driver’ together,” he said, before parroting the famed dialogue of that 1976 film’s star, Robert De Niro. “You talkin to me? Who the f*** you think you’re talking to?’”
The episode also launches into the beginnings of Microsoft and the fanatical dedication of the software startup’s founders.
Other great quotes:
- “We had a lot of fun. I had never gotten drunk and Paul got me drunk. Paul was into Jimi Hendrix and there was the song ‘Are You Experienced?’” — Bill Gates.
- “Bill and I were yin and yang. There was a stylistic difference in terms of intensity.” — Paul Allen.
- “A key advantage I had was being fanatical, that is taking all my capabilities day and night and just focusing on, ‘OK, how do I write good software? I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacation.” — Bill Gates
The final episode deals with another pillar of philanthropy in Gates’ arsenal: clean energy solutions. But like the rest of the series, it flits back and forth between relationships, Microsoft and other obligations which shaped Gates and continue to compete for his attention.
For as much as Guggenheim and others have made it clear that Gates processes information like few other people, the documentary chronicles a clutter of emotions, life events, victories, struggles and responsibilities that make what’s “Inside Bill’s Brain” feel very much like the rest of us.
Is he wrong sometimes? Melinda Gates is asked. “Absolutely!” she said.
Does she call you on your shit? Gates is asked. “A lot of it, sure.” he said. Not all of it? “Well, I hope she doesn’t know all of it. … No, i’m just kidding!”
The connection and partnership between the Gateses is very much solidified here, and it sheds some light on how their love came to be. When Melinda was new to Microsoft there were “a lot of men there!” and she was still “looking around.” But after dating, “I love yous” were eventually exchanged and Bill needed to decide if he could commit to Melinda and Microsoft.
She said at one point a whiteboard in his bedroom had the pros and cons of getting married scribbled on it.
Microsoft’s skyrocketing success (dancing Ballmer, of course) and antitrust battle is juxtaposed against this turning point for the young couple, who would eventually turn away from Microsoft and toward their foundation and a planet and population that could use their expertise and resources.
Climate change and Gates’ desire to do for clean energy what he did for computing is the final focus. But can he get there with nuclear energy? “What if the thing that terrifies us could actually save us?” Guggenheim asks.
It’s a years-long struggle, against public concern fueled by disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima and most recently against the political posturing of the Trump administration in its trade battle with China.
Ever the optimist who insists harder work is often the answer to solving complex problems, we’re left wondering whether Gates ever knows when it’s time to give up on something. Is it a superpower or a flaw?
Asked about one main criticism of himself, that he’s a technophile who thinks technology will save everything, Gates said he’s basically guilty of that.
“Any problem I will look at how technical innovation can help solve that problem,” Gates said. “It’s the one thing I know and the one thing I’m good at. That’s my hammer. And a lot of problems look like nails, because I’ve got a hammer.”
Other great quotes:
- “You bet. I’d rather have them live there than next to a coal plant or natural gas plant.” — Bill Gates, on whether he’d want his kids down river from one of his nuclear reactors.
- “Nuclear reactors are not the thing you get into if you want to win popularity contests. Eliminating polio is a lot more popular.” — Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures Lab.
- “When we first met, she had other boyfriends, and I had Microsoft.” Bill Gates, on dating Melinda.