Title: Bill W.
Directors: Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino
Starring: Blake J. Evans, Chris Gates, Dennis Lowell, Julia Schell, Tim Intravia
A documentary about the man who clawed his own way out of drunkenness and then forged a path for countless others to follow by co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous, “Bill W.” benefits from the plainly fascinating nature of its subject — a man of contradictions and consistent struggles, who lived a life of sacrifice and service and yet always seemed racked with doubt over whether it was quite enough. Borrowing liberally from moving and articulate personal correspondence as well as audio recordings of insightful speeches, the movie overcomes a bit of problematic construction to stand as a testament to the world’s most enduring and successful program of self-betterment and healing.
It’s no reflexive hyperbole to characterize Bill Wilson — as one of the movie’s interview subjects does, along with a 1999 “Time” magazine cover story on the 100 most influential persons of the 20th century — as having had a near-peerless personal and positive impact on the most lives over the last three-quarters of a century. His deep and sincere desire to quit drinking (which he only turned to as a pathologically shy young adult, beset with a gnawing sense of inferiority) and his redoubled efforts in the face of many setbacks (“discouragements that an ordinary man would have taken as sufficient,” as one person beautifully opines) make his story gripping enough in and of itself, but when one factors in the careful formation of his 12-step program, the story takes on almost mythological proportions.
It’s a credit, then, that this eight-year labor of love from co-directors Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino imparts such a solid sense of Wilson as both an addict and a man. Few that personally knew him (Wilson died in 1971, from complications resulting from emphysema) are available to speak, but “Bill W.” has a lot of interesting archival material, and many who can talk eloquently of his time spent honing the work and mission of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Perhaps most importantly, it also has the words of Wilson himself, who, in letters to his wife Lois and recorded talks at various A.A. events spanning many years, lends stirring voice to the dark grip of his disease. Wilson’s breakthrough personal realizations and doctrine — that self-knowledge did not by itself equal safety or long-term sobriety, and that acknowledgment of a higher power must be free from dogma or theology in order to most widely connect — shaped his 12-step program, and their ability to be subsequently reinterpreted throughout the lifetime of one’s recovery.
“Bill W.” features pantomimed re-enactment segments, with Blake J. Evans as Wilson, and other actors as key figures in Wilson’s life and the creation of A.A. These sequences are meant to breathe life into the story and open it up cinematically, but while they’re capably if tightly staged, they actually end up coming across as a bit distracting. Much more engaging — emotionally, intellectually and otherwise — are the stories of those actually helped by A.A., of which the film could actually use a bit more.
Chiefly by way of Jack Alexander’s big 1941 cover story for the “Saturday Evening Post,” “Bill W.” also touches on some of the early push-back and skepticism against A.A. — religious, general establishment and otherwise. It would have been perhaps even more instructive, however, to delve deeper into this, along with Wilson’s difficulty in bringing about racial integration and exerting control over rogue chapters that would be inclined to charge membership fees or, even more maddeningly, serve beer at meetings. These sorts of problems, deeper into A.A.’s effective social entrenchment — along with Wilson’s later experiments with LSD, which he saw as a way to jump-start the sort of deep introspection which could in turn spark spiritual enlightenment — are all crammed into the movie’s third act, and feel like they deserve a bit more of an expanded treatment. Jettisoning the re-enactments in favor of a pursuit of this material would more strongly tie “Bill W.” to the present day, and its new wave of compulsions, including prescription pill abuse. As is, however, this is still an interesting snapshot of a complicated man who sacrificed much, and whose extraordinary efforts and accomplishments still exist amongst us today.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.