Bill Nye: Science Guy Directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg

Bill Nye: Science Guy Directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg
Courtesy of Hot Docs
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Bill Nye isn't a scientist, but he played one on TV. More recently, he's expanded the role to real life. In the documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy, we're treated to a first-hand look at the passion Nye possesses for science and the commitment he's made educating people about the unassailable truths we've learned from its applications. It also doesn't shy away from presenting some of Nye's weaknesses and flaws, creating a relatively even-handed profile of an increasingly important agent of change in the field.

As we follow Nye around to various speaking engagements and appearances at events, we're continuously reminded at how much of an impact Nye made on kids who grew up in the '90s. A popular refrain in the film is young adults reminiscing about the excitement they felt when their science teachers wheeled a television into the classroom to watch episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Through old clips of the show, we're able to easily recall just how innovative and effective the show was at educating while also entertaining.

But the reality is that Nye majored in mechanical engineering and not science while at college, a fact that many of his detractors love to cite endlessly. Additionally, the film clarifies how Nye was merely an actor who became the face of the popular television show, while a couple of unsung producers behind the scenes were just as integral in making the show as successful as it became. There are multiple people close to Bill that assert he has always had an insatiable hunger for fame, an opinion that Nye himself does not really dispute.

Of course, maintaining a high profile goes hand-in-hand with accomplishing many of Nye's lofty scientific goals. The film devotes plenty of time to a couple of feuds Nye has waged in the name of separating fact from fiction. In one, he engages in a streamed debate with prominent young Earth creationist Ken Ham and even agrees to tour Ham's awful Noah's Ark-shaped theme park that pushes an anti-climate change agenda. In the other, Nye takes part in spirited discussions with noted meteorologist (and bodybuilder) Joe Bastardi, though their relationship appears to be a little more cordial, and Bastardi even expresses some reservations that he might end up on the wrong side of history when it comes to denying climate change.

Throughout these disagreements, it's consistently impressive how calm Nye remains in the face of ignorance, attempting to use reason even when his opponents clearly show little. It's equally striking to see the scientific curiosity he shows as we follow Nye to Greenland to study what the glaciers can tell us about climate change and the perseverance he displays in fulfilling his mentor Carl Sagan's dream as the Executive Director of The Planetary Society.

What's perhaps most noteworthy about David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's documentary is how it presents Nye not just as an ambitious would-be scientist but as a fallible human being. In candid conversations about his tumultuous upbringing and his genetic predisposition to ataxia that's affected both his siblings and caused Nye to not want to risk passing the affliction on to any kids of his own, we delve past the public persona and find out more about him than perhaps even he would like. As a "Science Guy," it may continue to be more important to Nye that he live up to the first part of that title, but it's always been the modest and unassuming second part that's made him so eminently relatable.