The documentary “Bill W.” is remarkable, if for nothing else, that it’s the first feature-length documentary about the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization with an estimated membership of 2 million people in the United States alone. Time Magazine named Bill Wilson one of the 100 most influential men of the 20th century, and yet remarkably little is known about him by the general public.
He’d have probably said it was supposed to be that way. After all, the second “A” in “AA” does stand for anonymous, after all.
And yet clearly this complex man didn’t mind being the center of attention, at least under his own terms. Outside AA though, he genuinely seems not to have courted the spotlight.
“Bill W.” must have seemed a daunting task to directors Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, both of whom are quick to disavow any connection to Alcoholics Anonymous. Producing a documentary about the founder of an anonymous society poses certain unique challenges. As it turned out, more archival film footage and audio recordings of Bill Wilson existed than the filmmakers expected.
Their movie traces Wilson’s life from his childhood in Vermont, and early adulthood, marriage, World War I experience and how he progressed from a non-drinker to regular drunk. Encouraged to sobriety by a former drinking buddy who had become sober, Wilson tried to rebuild a shattered business career. When a business trip to Akron went bad, Wilson found himself on the verge of getting drunk and had an epiphany: he needed to talk to another drunk. That realization led to his meeting Dr. Bob, an Akron physician whose own drinking was endangering his career as well as the lives of his patients.
The two found they could stay sober by helping other alcoholics achieve sobriety. They initially used some of the principles of The Oxford Group, a non-denominational Christian group popular in the early part of the century, and from there created the Twelve Steps, a program of recovery which has been imitated by countless other groups and organizations.
Carracino and Hanlon use a variety techniques to build their documentary. Some of “Bill W.” is done in a Ken Burns-type format, using film footage, photographs and audio recordings where available, and some re-enactments with actors (Blake Evans appears as Bill W., Chris Gates as Dr. Bob). The actors’ voices are not used - we hear audio tapes of the actual principals. By the way, Wilson’s voice is the opposite of what some might expect. Far from being a hellfire and brimstone preacher, his tone is low-key, conversational and self-deprecating.
There are also some interview segments with members of AA, whose faces, in keeping with that program’s traditions, are kept in shadow. Some of these people actually knew Bill W. and provide their own recollections.
“Bill W.” neither canonizes nor demonizes its subject. The approach is balanced and fair. AA’s early growing pains are presented matter-of-factly, and at one point a page of the manuscript of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous,” the so-called “Big Book,” is shown with handwritten revisions scrawled all over it in different handwritings and colored inks.
Bill Wilson was not a saint, and in fact, although he could enjoy being the center of attention, did not want to be taken for a messiah. He suffered from depression and it appears certain that he had at least one extramarital affair. He also participated in medically supervised experiments with LSD at a time when responsible psychiatrists thought it might have legitimate medical uses.
Bill W. tells of being offered a job that would have traded on his status as an AA founder during the organization’s formative years. Financially hard up, he could have used the money, but he turned the job down when some of his peers objected that if he became a professional, that if AA got tied up with any other institution, it could spell disaster for the organization. Seventy years later, AA is still here, and Bill W. is one of the most influential anonymous men in history. Maybe a little less anonymous now.
“Bill W.” will be showing for one night only at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany on Thursday, March 14, 2013.