Wilson was an alcoholic himself, a Wall Street employee and self-proclaimed lush who switched from using liquor to “dream dreams of power” to “drinking to forget” after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. By 1934, his professional life was ruined, for he hadn’t worked in years; his marriage to Lois Burnham fraying and childless, since, as a result of Bill’s heavy drinking, they weren’t able to get solid references for adoption. Repeating the battle of “drying out” in hospitals and psychiatric clinics, and repeatedly failing, Wilson was on death’s door when he felt the touch of a higher power, an experience that kept him sober for the rest of his life. Embracing sobriety and drawing inspiration from the Christian Oxford Group, Wilson realized the necessity of talking, and the power of community, in fighting off the demons of alcoholism. Dr. Bob Smith, A.A.’s future co-founder, was the first proof of this theory, and Wilson convinced him to give up alcohol, acknowledge his mistakes, apologize for them, and make a clean start of life. In short, Smith was the first person to employ the Twelve Steps, a means toward recovery that has become the charter for A.A., and the standard for many abuse support organizations since.
The documentary is a construction of interviews, archival footage and photographs, and reenactments. The interviews are particularly effective, especially tributes to Bill from recovering alcoholics who have never met him, but been affected by his work nonetheless. Moreover, much of the historical material is quite wonderful, particularly the original snapshots and snippets from letters between Wilson and Lois, Wilson and Smith, and Wilson and other A.A. members. In a particularly captivating moment, Hanlon and Carracino have set a montage of photographs of Bill at home, at work, at play, with friends and with Lois, in his most public and private times, to the tones of a recorded voiceover from one of his A.A. meeting speeches. The realness of the man is quite clear at that point in the film, his pain and his triumphs at their most acute.
However, the abundance of archival mementos – particularly some that are of the kitschier variety – leads to much of the film reading like a History Channel special, an educational piece more than entertainment. And perhaps that is the point. Yet, one can’t help but cringe at some of the reenactments, which are innocuous at best, but insulting to Wilson’s memory at worst. The moment when he finds God is depicted as no less than a hallucinogenic cartoon: time-lapse photography of nature, zoom shots in and out of the pupils of the actor playing Bill, and overexposed images accompany the voiceover in which Wilson describes his evangelical experience. The words, without the fairly trite imagery, would be more than enough. Entries from Lois’ diary are treated with equal puerility, her thoughts reduced to words scratched clumsily across a typeset page that reads, “From the Diary of Lois Wilson.” This uninteresting presentation detracts from the import of insight from Wilson’s closest friend and confidant.
Though Hanlon and Carracino certainly don’t provide an idolized portrait of Wilson, including descriptions of a long-term affair and addictions to LSD and niacin pills, these humanizing moments do seem to come a bit too late in the game. Rather than offering a balanced portrait of a quite complicated man throughout the film, “Bill W.” crams nearly everything negative it has to say about its protagonist into its last 25 minutes, after nearly an hour and a half of fairly even-handed interpretations. This creates an ending that is more bewildering than it is poignant: sad, even heartbreaking revelations are thrust into a last celebratory overture for Wilson’s groundbreaking ventures, and the tone of the film’s final note is unsettling in its attempt to be all-encompassing. Interestingly, this may be the film’s most successful section, as the reenactments are largely eliminated, and focus is returned to the interviewees.
Abandoned by both parents early in life and raised in rural Vermont by his grandparents, Bill felt a pressure to defy the stigma of the abandonment by simply being the best at everything. This neurosis led to his alcoholism, and he was never really able to better its crippling power over him. The fixation really only reached its ironic acme at his life’s end: Wilson was the number one man at A.A., an organization that put everyone on equal footing; he was a well-known figurehead and a pillar of community, but he couldn’t possibly be acknowledged; he was a god-like figure for so many, and, yet, just wanted to be a regular, recovering member of the community he piloted. This discordance transmits itself somewhat to the film’s overall lack of a cohesive tone: There is no clear arc or through-line of emotion across the piece. Rather, the mood of the film swings wildly back and forth between upbeat, festive accounts, and depictions of the darkest moments a human soul can experience. This manic switching is not necessarily out of place, given the documentary’s subject matter, particularly Bill’s lifelong battle with depression and inner demons. In fact, it likely helps to explain the complicated nature of addiction to those who have been fortunate enough to avoid it. Thanks to – rather than despite – an excess of moments that spotlight the hopeless sadness of life, “Bill W.” portrays a heartrending and beautiful testament to the lives Bill Wilson’s work has saved, given back, and steadied. [B]