LITTLE ROCK There’s nothing terribly flashy about Bill W., a commendable if programmatic educational bio-doc about Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William G. “Bill” Wilson.
Its chief asset is probably the voice of Wilson himself. Although he died in 1971, he left behind an apparently voluminous archive of tape recordings of his addresses.
The directors, Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino, employ these recordings, as well as recordings of Bill’s tireless wife, Lois, along with interviews (in keeping with the organization’s policy of anonymity, AA members are filmed in shadow), archival footage and well-realized and restrained re-enactments in which none of the actors speak.
It resolves into an experience that’s a lot like reading an oral biography of the Vermont native, who had resigned himself to madness and death before finding his way to sobriety.
It opens, compellingly enough, with Wilson telling how, in 1932, after a period of prosperous sobriety, he threw away some lucrative business prospects for a jug of “applejack ... ‘Jersey Lightning,’” a libation he’d never sampled before.
“So when that jug was passed to me, a curtain had fallen between me and reality,” Wilson’s recorded voice recounts. “So, I said, ‘Thanks very much. I will have one little shot this time; it couldn’t hurt me at all.’
“I lay in that hotel drunk for three days. That, I submit, is not the habit of drinking, that is the obsession of drinking. That obsession that has condemned people like us, time out of mind, to insanity and death.”
But it wasn’t until three years later, in 1935, that Wilson, along with Dr. Robert Smith (“Dr. Bob” to AA members), finally founded their famous organization, which took several principles from the nondenominational Christian movement The Oxford Group.
Yet while the origin myth of Alcoholics Anonymous may be familiar to millions, Bill W. is hardly a hagiography, and its subject, while an inspiring figure, was certainly no saint. He is revealed as something of a Vermont bumpkin, whose first drink (at the relatively advanced age of 22) revealed a way he could ingratiate himself into society, tamping down the feelings of insecurity that plagued him.
His father was an alcoholic, but the fact that his parents divorced when he was young was a far more serious stigma. Still, as a child Wilson was able, through force of will, to make himself into a popular figure. The film hints at a deep wound suffered in high school when his sweetheart died suddenly.
Wilson went off to serve in the Great War (he took his first drink, a Bronx cocktail, in uniform) and after the war returned to New York to work as a Wall Street analyst (not, as is commonly held, a stockbroker). Apparently he had some gifts, and apparently (though the movie doesn’t state this explicitly) he was a nasty drunk.
But while AA worked - for Wilson and thousands of others - his life was ultimately not a happy one. AA may have saved him, but it also became an albatross around his neck, as he was co-opted by those who lionized him. In effect he became a professional, though nonpracticing, alcoholic.
Depression hounded him, and while his belief in anonymity seems refreshing in these days of instant celebrity, he was not without ego. The filmmakers (who point out on their website that they are not affiliated with AA) acknowledge his infidelities and his experiments with (then legal) LSD.
Certainly the film is a bit uneven, and there are areas we wish were explored in more depth. But Bill W. works as cinematic biography, it provides us with a surprisingly nuanced picture of one of the most important Americans of the 20th century.
Documentary, with William G. Wilson
Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino