Bill Nye, as seen in Bill Nye: Science Guy (PBS)

For millennials who grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy, whether at home or in the classroom, director’s David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s documentary about the man behind the bow tie will likely be a must-see film. After all, Nye was the kind of teacher that all kids wished they’d had, no matter what the subject.

In the 100 TV shows that aired between 1993 and 1999, he displayed a distinct knack for making basic scientific principles understandable, and his childlike enthusiasm was infectious. Of late, he’s been cast as a staunch defender of climate change science. Scattered amongst Nye’s more recent endeavors, the film gives glimpses of controversy, family issues, and self-psychoanalysis while failing to provide an in-depth look at any of these matters. As a result, many viewers will be left scratching their heads, wondering at the point of the film.

Given that he is a Cornell graduate who considered Carl Sagan to be his mentor, it will come as a surprise to many that Nye does not hold a degree in science. He studied mechanical engineering. But in the early ’90’s, Nye said he began to despair over America’s shift in its relationship with science. He wanted to find a way to get kids excited about it again. There are also indications that his ambition for fame played a large role in the creation of his wildly popular show.

After the last episode aired, Nye’s fame led to his being cast in a public relations role for the scientific community. He receives frequent speaking engagements at conferences and on talk and news shows. Despite high-profile supporters, Neil DeGrasse Tyson the most recognizable among them, Nye has his share of detractors. Leaders in the field have become particularly annoyed with Nye’s tendency to publicly debate climate change deniers, like meteorologist Joe Bastardi and Ken Ham, a creationist. Some scientists feel Nye is providing these people a public platform and, by so doing, legitimizing their unfounded positions.

Old family photos and interviews with his brother provide a glimpse into Nye’s youth. Both of his parents were World War II veterans—his mother a code breaker for the Enigma project. Nye’s father had the genetic disease Ataxia, which affects balance and movement, and it was a fall that led to their father’s death. Nye professes a sort of survivor’s guilt over being the only sibling of three children not to have contracted the disease. Initially, he blames this as his reason for not raising a family of his own, but later he pin points his failure to marry on his parent’s marital problems and later still reluctantly admits that his drive to maintain his celebrity status has kept him from committing to a relationship.

Just when the directors seem committed to cast a critical eye on their subject, the revelation that Nye has been named the chief executive of Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society places him firmly back on his scientific pedestal. Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, can’t speak highly enough of Nye and his accomplishments for the organization. Indeed, Sagan’s dream of launching a light solar sail spacecraft is finally realized under Nye’s leadership, potentially issuing in a new era in space travel.

Can Nye be considered a scientist if he’s lacking a PhD? Does he have the right to teach scientific principles or to speak on behalf of the science community? Does his drive to remain in the spotlight negate his success in inspiring young people to pursue a career in science or help in furthering the goals of Sagan’s Planetary Society? In this eclectic portrait, it will be up to viewers to decide.

Directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg
Released by PBS
USA. 97 min. Not rated