It's fitting that Bill W., a documentary that recalls the life of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William G. Wilson, lacks the bells and whistles of modern-day special effects and features. Wilson's story, one of heartbreak, recovery, and heroism, is a serious one, and the never-before-seen photographs, letters, diary entries, and speeches speak for themselves.
For a film about a man so concerned with anonymity, Bill W. is an impressively intimate portrait, helping the audience understand the truths behind addiction. Wilson, who created the 12-step program used by millions since, is brought to life by filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino.
The success of the film is rooted in the honest delivery of its story. The filmmakers do not simply honor Wilson as a luminary who rose from the ashes of alcoholism and depression at the snap of a religious revelation. Instead, we see Wilson cheat on his fiercely dedicated wife, experiment with LSD, and request alcohol as he suffered on his deathbed from emphysema.
Wilson has an experienced telling voice on the recordings that dominates and drives the film. Photos and footage from the '30s and '40s back up his vocal presence and deliver a clear, inspirational, yet realistic message. The dramatic reenactments were the only over-the-top moments: The screen pans through rooms of actors posing as Alcoholic Anonymous participants sitting, nodding, and grinning along to a speech, as original audio of Wilson speaking plays over the scene. The speech is presumed to be from an actual AA meeting, until about halfway through the running time we very briefly see video that matches the audio, and it's footage of Wilson sitting alone and talking into the camera.
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Throughout the tragic recollection of Bill W.'s legacy is Yo-Yo Ma's interpretation of Bach's "Cello Suites," an appropriately melancholy and sweet melody allowing the audience to forgive some of the more extensive melodrama.
Today, two million people belong to 100,800 groups of alcoholics helping alcoholics. AA has saved millions of lives worldwide, and the documentary emphasizes the struggle and triumph of doing so. But it's not preachy, and considering the subject matter, avoiding that tone is a triumph in itself. Bill W. offers up some interesting history, but its greatest success is acquainting movie-goers with the real human being behind AA, warts and all.
Bill W. runs tonight through Sunday at O Cinema.