"Bill Nye: Science Guy" is a surprisingly kaleidoscopic portrait of someone we thought we already knew.
It reveals a man much more intriguing than the Emmy-winning kid show host he played through the 1990s. Directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg examine the human side of the television performer, educational comedian and bona fide celebrity in an era when science education is undervalued and entrenched belief systems resist persuasion.
While earning a degree in mechanical engineering at Cornell University, Nye found his love of science deepened after taking a class from Carl Sagan. He was fascinated by the vision of the celebrated astronomer and author who saw our surroundings as galaxies brimming with things waiting to be learned.
An aircraft engineer for Boeing after graduation, Nye explored a calling to comedy, performing in Seattle stand-up clubs. He quit his job to pursue performing after winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest in 1986. Before long, he was starring in his own local TV show with goofy on-screen experiments, adding humor and personality unknown in typical scientific broadcasting. A star was born and Nye was soon a public figure drawing financial backing from the National Science Foundation, Disney's TV division and PBS.
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After almost a decade in that format, he felt it was time to move on. He was still on a mission to make science matter, but increasingly in public forums where some insisted that fact-based research is fantasy.
We see him at a creationist theme park in Kentucky, where he debates the fundamentalist founder. When the encounter is broadcast online, fundraising for the park skyrockets, and it becomes clear to Nye that making science approachable and exciting to children is easy compared with the challenge of winning over adults.
Now 61, he remains on his mission, trying to push back against climate change deniers and discredit anti-science. He discusses his choice to be unmarried and childless and to leave behind a legacy of educating people to improve the world. A longtime friend notes that Nye "always wanted to be famous," the fact that celebrity is sometimes a shallow reward, and Nye's determination to use his fame to advance causes and projects. When we follow him on a trip to study Greenland's ice cores or oversee the launch of a solar-powered spacecraft as chief executive of the Planetary Society, you feel that he has made valuable choices indeed.
'BILL NYE: SCIENCE GUY'
Unrated: Suitable for all audiences.