Review: Documentary ‘Bill Nye: Science Guy’ Considers the Legacy of the TV Star as He Battles Deniers of Evolution and Climate Change

A specific generation of children grew up on Bill Nye The Science Guy. The show made scientific topics understandable for kids, and Bill Nye knew how to ham it up and goof around in a way that was appealing to young audiences. In our pop culture memory, it was the TV version of Nye (along, of course, with Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus) who provided us with an introduction to science.

These days, decades after the end of the show and during a time when anti-science thinking is not only rampant, but it’s taken up residence in the White House, Nye seems like a lone wolf fighting against a tide of misinformation. He’s on CNN and Fox News, he’s holding public debates and events, he’s leaning into the “Science Guy” persona as much as ever. It is easy to view him as an advocate, and perhaps tempting to see him as a hero.

But what the documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy achieves, as the best documentaries do, is peer behind the curtain of illusion and try to find some kind of truth. What that entails for filmmakers David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg is raising questions about Nye’s credentials (he has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, but no other formal science training) and his career (details are revealed about how he tried to go rogue with the Science Guy TV idea, leaving his collaborators behind), and following it up with: Does it matter? Does the work Nye is doing to support science in the culture and in the public sphere outweigh his own desire for fame and his own performative nature? Or is his approach more self-serving than helpful?

Bill Nye: Science Guy walks a fine line: It abstains from making those decisions for viewers, but it also provides a good amount of history about Nye and context about how other scientists view his transition from TV host to fighting creationists and climate change deniers. And the documentary also observes and interviews those opponents of Bill, too, like Ken Ham, a creationist with big money and big backers whose museum refuting evolution has exhibits showing dinosaurs and humans next to each other (Nye’s dry delivery of “to suggest this to school children is … irresponsible at best” is pretty killer) and has a mannequin with a thought bubble “I NEVER HEARD THIS BEFORE IN SCHOOL.” Screen time is also given to meteorologist Joe Bastardi, a vehement climate change denier who argues “Is it worth crashing the American economy? No, I don’t believe that” and whose son shows up to rattle Nye during a public appearance. And there’s also anthropologist Dr. Eugenie Scott, who says of Nye, “I don’t know what Bill’s goals are”—a slightly skeptical undercurrent that pops up a few times from other scientists interviewed in the documentary.

But the time spent with Bill captures a complicated man who seems to be battling his own feelings of personal inadequacy (he gets teary-eyed when discussing his parents; he mentions regret over not having his own family) and who understands his own shortcomings. “I don’t have a PhD, so I talk to the experts,” he says, and we see him do it, traveling to laboratories and universities and organizations to learn more about the subjects he then discusses in front of public audiences. Is Bill a mouthpiece who is furthering his own fame? Bill Nye: Science Guy allows viewers to make their own conclusions. But the documentary is clear in its presentation of Nye as a man who is self-aware of how others will view his limitations but still determined to keep moving forward in the defense of science and in the education of children, and that is an admirable thing. “Just trying to change the world here,” Nye says at the end of Bill Nye: Science Guy, and I believed him.