At the end of Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, a new three-part Netflix documentary about the Microsoft creator, released on Friday, we get a highly questionable reading of American literature. When Bill and Melinda were first dating, she had a green light in her office that she’d put on when he could come by. It was a reference to The Great Gatsby, the light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. And Bill, in voice-over, as the two paddle a kayak on a lovely lake, quotes reverently from the book they both loved, words that now adorn his library: “He’d come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”
Gates doesn’t address how Gatsby is a critique of such superlative dreaming, where—how does it go?—all that wealth and empty romance leaves a woman dead on the side of the road, Gatsby dead in a pool, and the woman’s husband dead beside the pool. In many ways, Inside Bill’s Brain suffers from the same optimism. It doesn’t really function as a thorough biography, even a rosy one. Mostly it’s a good 101-level introduction to his and Melinda's recent philanthropic and world-bettering efforts: eradicating polio, toilets that can be used in the developing world (they burn poop and create drinkable water), nuclear energy plants that run on uranium waste.
That’s a shame, since Gates is fascinating and deserving of a rich, textured portrait: A brilliant kid from Seattle dropped out of Harvard, pioneered software, crushed competitors with questionable business tactics, and became the posterboy for capitalist monopoly, tech’s first proper villain, who got publicly pied in the face. Then, when he was embroiled in a long anti-trust lawsuit, he and Melinda started the Gates Foundation and Bill began his pivot to being one of the world’s foremost philanthropists.
The problem is that Inside Bill’s Brain nearly elides criticism of its subject. It relies on sound bites from old news broadcasts to address the business and anti-trust controversy—which mostly arrives in a few-minute segment deep in the third episode. It briefly, and somewhat warmly, touches on his relentlessness and arrogance, how he used to constantly tell underlings, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” Yet it extensively interviews Bill, Melinda, Nathan Myhrvold, Warren Buffett (Bill’s bridge partner), and various higher-ups at Gates companies.
It’s all watchable enough (though it lingers on a lot of close-ups of him chewing his glasses arm and drinking cans of Diet Coke—because, thinking!). Bill and Melinda are warm and charming conversationalists. Those toilets and nuclear reactors are interesting. It’s peppered with fun details: Paul Allen and Bill saw Super Fly! together with an all-black audience; Allen got him drunk for the first time; Bill carries a huge tote bag of books around and blows through 150 pages an hour, retaining 90 percent of it.
But the documentary never delivers on its title. Director Davis Guggenheim’s interviews with Gates don't press him toward true openness or self-examination. His idea of a tough question involves asking Gates whether he’s really “a technophile who believes technology will save everything.” (Gates figures that’s fair enough.) Nor does Guggenheim bother with sources who might offer a richer view. So we’re left on the outside, with a simple portrait of complexity.