Relatively unknown and yet responsible for creating an organization that has saved millions, Bill Wilson gets his due in “Bill W.,” Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino’s sturdy bio-docu on the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and patriarch of the 12-step program. Showing deep appreciation for Wilson’s influence, as well as for the obscurity in which he spent his career in the spiritual-rescue business, the helmers employ a motherlode of photographs, diary entries, correspondence and recorded speeches to tell a sensational story that many will think they know, but don’t. A natural for educational play, the pic should reap a homevid bonanza.
William G. Wilson, a onetime stock analyst with a devastating addiction to alcohol, was, by his own admission, a hopeless drunk when he had his Damascus moment in 1934, experiencing a spiritual rebirth that kept him off booze the rest of his life. Strongly influenced by the Christian evangelical Oxford Group, Wilson believed that to maintain sobriety, drunks had to lean on each other, a thesis that had its first test when Wilson was introduced to Bob Smith, or Dr. Bob, an alcoholic physician and Oxford acolyte who responded to Wilson’s theories. Together, they founded an organization that, as “Bill W.” says, has more than 2 million members, operates in 150 countries and has inspired 60 other programs based on the principles included in the AA “big book” (of which there are 30 million copies in circulation).
But Hanlon and Carracino aren’t in the veneration business: Among the more idol-toppling details they provide in “Bill W.” is Wilson’s unfaithfulness to his saintly wife, Lois; his experiments with vitamin B3 and (more shockingly) LSD during the bouts of depression he experienced in his sobriety; and the story that Wilson, on his deathbed, asked for whisky. None of this is news, exactly, but it certainly serves to humanize the film’s portraiture, honoring Wilson’s legacy without putting him on a pedestal.
Where Hanlon and Carracino err is in their dramatic re-enactments, which are jammed awkwardly into a movie that relies mostly on astute talking heads; on period archival footage from the ’30s and ’40s of New York or Akron, where Smith and Wilson had their momentous meeting; and on Wilson’s irresistible voice, recorded at various AA meetings and conventions. The sight of a mock audience listening to Wilson’s oratory is a bad idea, as is the use of an actor portraying Wilson after a three-day binge who looks like he just woke up from a nap.
But the story itself overcomes the occasional misfire, the founding of AA being a tale of struggle, poverty and courage, but never unqualified triumph. Made more bittersweet by Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach interpretations on cello, the “Bill W.” story is about a man, but also about a group whose history might be considered a bit checkered, depending on who you were. In its early days, racism and religious bigotry tainted an organization that was supposed to be for everybody; bizarrely, there were even groups that served beer. But AA was also an idea that solved, for many people, a problem that medical science considered unsolvable. The directors get that, and it makes their docu a credible contribution to the ongoing conversation.
Sound, music and photography are first-rate.