Film Reviews

Review: ‘Bill Nye: Science Guy’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Bill Nye: Science Guy
(USA, 101 min.)
Dir. David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Bill Nye: Science Guy would be a relaxed, amiable film about an eccentric TV personality, were it not for his battles with anti-science anti-intellectuals, including Christian fundamentalists who deny the theory of evolution and are positive there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. As for climate change deniers, he can barely hide his disgust. Nye’s obvious passion for science and the natural wonders it explicates leads him into almost quixotic confrontations. The film takes on urgent relevance in the Age of the Ignoramus-and-Reality-Denier-in-Chief.

Alvarado and Sussberg’s playful, intelligent, fluidly assembled film takes the full measure of a man who back in the day enthralled millions of kids with his hyper-enthusiastic, sometimes zany approach to teaching science. For instance, in his legendary show on gravity, Nye threw all kinds of stuff, including computers and TV sets, off a roof. Like many TV stars, he has signatures: the bowties, the Sherlock Holmes hats and fedoras, the wry manner. In the opening scene, we see him meticulously adjust the tie in a mirror and then rush on stage to the wild applause of a huge crowd.

Of course, the doc goes deeper than Nye’s craving for the spotlight and his winning shtick. This is a bio-doc that traces Nye’s history and reveals his vulnerabilities. Nye’s mother, a big influence, worked on the anti-Nazi Enigma Code during World War 2 and eventually became estranged from his “sarcastic” father. The Science Guy admits to having “intimacy issues”; although he has been on the verge of marrying, he never did. We see child-like side of him when he plays with an extraordinarily elaborate train set designed by his father.

Bill Nye also reveals that his family has a history of Ataxia, a debilitating neurological condition. Although he is free of any symptoms, other family members aren’t. Children, he says, were out of the question because he didn’t want to pass on the hereditary gene.

The doc dwells at length on Nye’s human antagonists: Ken Ham, the dangerously slick, apparently reasonable creationist who built the gigantic facsimile of Noah’s ark, and Joe Bastardi, the TV weatherman, body builder, and climate change denier Nye sees as threats to human progress. He publically debates them to discredit their “weird, untenable world view.”

The man who never had kids has devoted himself to educating children and discrediting people who lie to them and endanger their future. Bastardi’s son warns his father to be wary of Nye. “He’s like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rolled into one.”

This film is not hagiography, but it definitely sees the Science Guy as an unlikely hero of our time.

Bill Nye: Science Guy screens:
-Thursday, May 4 at Isabel Bader at 9:00 PM
-Saturday, May 6 at the Revue at 1:00 PM

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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