One of the great social revolutionaries of the 20th Century, Bill Wilson changed the world in a way few people have, via a social movement that now spans 150 countries and 2 million members. Bill W., the exceptionally comprehensive character study of the Alcoholics Anonymous founder by first-time filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino provide rare insight into a man who jump-started the recovery movement and took anonymity to heart.
Wilson was a young men with a bright future as a business in the 1920s whose bouts with depression and constant drinking undermined his future. After struggling with his addiction for several years, Wilson kicked the habit after a spiritual awakening, but soon realized the necessity of having a kindred soul for moral support. Enter AA co-founder Dr. Robert “Bob” Smith, with whom Wilson wrote the book Alcoholics Anonymous and built an organization that would save the world, “one drunk at a time”.
It took its toll on Wilson, however. Quitting drinking did not free the him from the depression which drove him to it, and his later life was plagued by psychological, financial, and marital difficulties. Hanlon and Carrino’s candid and honest approach to the man and his flaws — his infidelity, controversial drug experiments, and deathbed demands for alcohol — and his self-described missteps while building AA give true insight into the man without placing him on a pedestal, and reminds us that when alcoholics quit drinking they aren’t necessarily cured of their flaws.
That it’s taken this long for a biopic to made isn’t surprising; Bill W. adhered strictly to AA’s tenet of anonymity (famously turning down a degree from Yale and the cover of Time magazine), something that contrasts starkly with today’s era of celebrity self-help gurus. There is very little film footage of Wilson, but the man kept extensive journals and wrote regular correspondence, and his numerous public speaking appearances were recorded often. Like its subject, the documentary is appropriately low-key, and it allows Wilson to, in a way, tell his own story. Hanlon and Carrancino combine the audio with judicious use of re-enactment and supplemental interviews.
It’s from those speeches that we truly come to know the man, a down-to-earth regular joe with a self-deprecating sense of humor, keen insight, and seemingly endless reservoir of patience and empathy.
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