Documentary Bill W. distills the man behind Alcoholics Anonymous
In 1960, Bill Wilson declined to have his picture on the cover of Time magazine. As explained in the documentary, Bill W.—screening as part of the second annual Reel Recovery Film Festival on Saturday (October 20)—the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous was profoundly averse to personal acclaim. Even as he was uncomfortably elevated to iconic status, Wilson sought at all times to “set the best possible example for anonymity”.
Filmmakers Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon are well aware of this odd little contradiction at the heart of their engrossing film, made all the more real by the massive amounts of archival material they managed to acquire, including home movies, voice recordings, letters, diaries, and a highly fortuitous cache of some 1,500 photographs belonging to a collector in New York.
To say the least, Bill W. paints a vivid portrait of the man whose battle with the bottle led to the remarkably successful program for recovery that he helped create in 1935—one that is practised by some 2,000,000 people worldwide. But Wilson would have preferred being a member, not a leader, as the film is at pains to convey.
“I had a little insecurity about this,” Carracino tells the Georgia Straight from his office in Laguna Beach, California. “I know that he, in his lifetime, would not have wanted this kind of attention.” Still, as codirector Hanlon adds, Wilson was also well aware that he’d be survived by public curiosity.
“And he did have a lot of respect for the value of history,” Hanlon says, joining the conversation from New York. “He went to great lengths to make sure AA’s history was being preserved as much as possible during his lifetime. He knew this was coming, one way or the other. I’m not saying he’d have liked the film—I can’t say that—but I don’t think he’d have been surprised.”
Chances are that Wilson would have appreciated the highly nuanced portrait that Carracino and Hanlon have produced. He’s a fascinating figure; brilliant, troubled, magnetic, gently paternal, and extremely complex. Indeed, Bill W. doesn’t shy away from Wilson’s flaws or gloss over his continuing struggles with depression—a “gnawing feeling of inferiority”, in his own words, that eventually led to infidelity and experiments with LSD and niacin.
Hanlon reports that viewers have overwhelmingly appreciated their attempts to “humanize” Wilson. In the end, through the prism of a single man, Bill W. captures the essence of what it means to wage a daily and lifelong war with addiction and how—by some sort of mixture of providence, character, and chemistry—this translated into Wilson’s greatest achievement.
Hanlon notes that AA wasn’t the first-ever group “based on one alcoholic talking to another”, But it’s the only one that lasted, via Wilson’s dedication to “creating a structure that would survive him”.
“He was able to distill some very, very complicated things into simple language. He’s an exceptionally good writer,” Carracino offers, referring to the Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions, and Twelve Concepts that Wilson authored as AA evolved over the years. “It’s very unusual for an organization to survive as long as AA has without ever changing its basic operating procedure. To me, that’s where he’s brilliant.”
Watch the trailer for Bill W.