A beautifully assembled documentary, Bill W. reveals the purposefully low-profiled co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
William G. Wilson, aka Bill W., built Alcoholics Anonymous on the work of Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, a pioneer in the treatment of alcoholism; the Christian organization called the Oxford Group; and his spiritual mentor, Father Ed Dowling.
Wilson was a successful man of Wall Street prior to the stock market crash of 1929. As described in Bill W., he essentially was a financial analyst, skilled at evaluating a company’s worth and potential. But even before the crash, Wilson’s obsession with drink became debilitating.
The documentary — through still photographs, well-chosen stock film footage, audio recordings and film footage of Wilson plus re-enacted scenes — takes viewers from Wilson’s early life in a small Vermont town through celebrity status in the 1960s.
Wilson experienced significant trauma early in life. He and his sister were abandoned by their parents. In a small Yankee town in the early 20th century, being the children of a broken marriage brought painful stigma.
The young Wilson fell in love in 1912, but his girlfriend died suddenly at a tragically young age. Her death shocked Wilson, leaving him in years of grief.
Wilson experienced his first drink as a young man. It was a revelation. Wilson lost his inhibitions. No longer shy, he became the life of the party. He also fell in love again. Bill and Lois Wilson would remain married until his death in 1971.
Although the devoted Lois Wilson knew of her new husband’s problems with drink, she naively believed that she could change him. Bill W. details Wilson’s descent into alcoholism and his powerlessness against addiction.
In audio voiceover, Lois Wilson says, “Bill finally realized he had a problem.” The couple tries every possible remedy for Wilson’s addiction without success. “I would always pick up a drink and destroy everything,” he admits.
By 1934, Wilson had a choice between dying with drink or living without it. He chose life and, in the process, began developing the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I’m a guy who would never make a full revelation about myself,” Wilson says. “I’m one of those damn Yankees that would just bottle things up and hang on and I can’t let go.”
A succession of historians and, apparently, typical modern-day recovering alcoholics who have benefited from Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step program contribute their observations throughout the documentary. True to AA’s anonymity, many of them, even the historians, speak anonymously in deep shadow.
Co-directors Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino staged a major coup with the cache of film and audio they’ve assembled of the real Bill W. Much of the film, silent though it is, is even in color.
The filmmakers’ device of depicting letters and words as they’re typed in real-time on a page, too, periodically tells Wilson’s story one revealing sentence at a time.
Bill W. further succeeds because it mounts a non-fawning portrait of Wilson. True to the man himself, flaws he retained even after sobering up are shown. The resulting film is quietly compelling and, in the world of documentary filmmaking, uniquely dispassionate in its honesty and, consequently, true to its non-self-aggrandizing subject.