In the end, the cure for an alcoholic turns out to be other alcoholics. That’s the simple idea behind Alcoholics Anonymous, the grassroots, incredibly effective group which claims over two million members around the globe. They get together, drink notoriously bad coffee, swap stories and try to keep each other from not drinking alcohol for one more day.
“Bill W.” looks at the creator of Alcoholics Anonymous, William Wilson, and it has an unflashy but empathetic approach that probably reflects that of its subject. And if it’s a film that overtly lionizes its subject, it’s also honest about his failings. In that way, I suppose, that honesty and forthrightness also pays tribute to AA.
Wilson probably would have been a successful businessman in the 1910s and 1920s if he didn’t self-sabotage himself by drinking. Instead, after another business deal fell through and he found himself in an Akron hotel room tempted by the bottle, he reached out to another alcoholic friend.
“I need to talk to another drunk,” he famously said, and the philosophy behind Alcoholics Anonymous was born. At the same time, so was the partnership that built it, as that friend was Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron doctor who co-created AA with Wilson.
No therapy, no drugs, no experts — just people in a room telling their stories to each other. Addiction shames and isolates people, and the ability to tell others that you know what they’re going through, and the knowledge that you’re not alone, is a powerful thing.
In keeping with the “Anonymous” part of Alcoholics Anonymous, most of the subjects in Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon’s documentary are filmed in shadow, to protect their identity, even one woman who knew Wilson and has been sober for 56 years. That anonymity pact is inviolate.
The filmmakers also have film footage of Wilson at their disposal, but what really elevates the film is the copious use of original audio tapes featuring Wilson. A big, rangy guy who would have been played by Jimmy Stewart in a movie, he had a warm, sardonic voice, full of self-deprecating humor as he describes the power the bottle had over him. You can imagine the effect such plain talk had on fellow drunks used to keeping their addictions a secret.
In that voice, you can hear Wilson’s no-nonsense demeanor, his pragmatic desire after years of falling off the wagon to find something that worked. In Alcoholics Anonymous, he and millions of others found it.