This documentary is about Bill Wilson. He was an alcoholic.
Not just any alcoholic either, though Bill spent most of his life trying to disavow folks of the belief that he was in some way special. Bill was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization devoted to the notion that all drinkers are one and the same, their problems are equal and their struggle part of a community. Bill W., the new film about Wilson's life directed by Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, is intent on resolving this dichotomy: Bill's story is different, it is special, yet he was also his best client. He was a drunk who needed the organization to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Bill W. takes a conventional approach, recreating Bill's own confessional from recordings of presentations he gave to interested parties and gatherings of his followers. Using his own words, and placing them alongside testimonials from people who have known him, studied him, or benefited from his philosophy, the filmmakers build his story from the ground up. Beginning with the early years marked by personal tragedy and serving in WWI, leading into that first drink, and the difficulties that followed. Bill was an entrepreneur who rode a series of waves, achieving success and then losing it to alcohol, rebuilding and losing again. It took many failures, including nearly destroying his marriage, to get him on the straight and narrow. Only when he started to help others, and to eventually approach doing so as another sort of business, did he get his life on track.
Alcoholics Anonymous grew slowly at the outset, but once it blossomed, it blossomed fast, turning into a large national organization that relied on Bill as its center. Bill W. doesn't really psychoanalyze its subject too much, but there is some intimation that his addiction to the bottle soon became an addiction to running the program. This eventually got to be too much for him, as well, and the later decades of Bill Wilson's life have a sadness that doesn't quite tip over into tragedy, but it gets close. What Bill needed was the same safety and anonymity that he offered others; what many wanted instead was a saint. Bill was desperate to reclaim the foibles that he had long since felt he wasn't allowed to have.
Bill W. is not a movie that requires heavy analysis. It is the story of a complicated life told simply, and that is both good and bad. The creation of Alcoholics Anonymous is an inherently interesting story. It took dedication, cleverness, and even a little chicanery to get off the ground. The eventual influence that Bill Wilson's ideas had is undeniable. There are also some fascinating characters that helped him bring it together, including his close friends and the people he loved. Unsurprisingly, a man who had this kind of impact on so many lives is going to be treated with a certain amount of reverence, but the seriousness of the proceedings also drags Bill W. down. I'm not suggesting Carracino and Hanlon should have indulged in sensationalism or tabloid journalism, but they do tend to treat the more difficult aspects of Wilson's struggles with a delicacy that can be distancing. The result is Bill Wilson still seems...unknowable.
Still, don't let the message go unheard because the messenger is imperfect. If Bill Wilson stood for anything, it's that, and Bill W. continues to spread the word he worked so hard to share.