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Meet Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hailed for his efforts by no less a source than Time magazine in its list of “100 Persons of the 20th Century,” Wilson has also been deified over the years by A.A. members for his inspirational success story as well as the evocative speaking style through which he conveyed his sobering tale. Along comes this documentary, which seeks to restore Wilson to human scale (hence the use of an initial in the title rather than his surname, restoring to Wilson the anonymity so basic in the organization’s tenets). Despite the filmmakers’ efforts to humanize Wilson, however, Bill W. still dabbles in hagiography, valorizing the man while also painting him as a reluctant hero.
While Wilson’s life story is somewhat canonical for members of A.A. (at least for those alive to have experienced the organization’s birth in the Thirties or who had personal contact with Wilson prior to his death in 1971), it is still a fascinating saga. Both as a product of its times and as the granddaddy of an alphabet soup’s worth of other 12-step programs, A.A. looms large in the history of addiction and recovery. Though original in its adoption of fellowship and anonymity as cornerstones of its program, A.A. owes much to the Christian-based Oxford Group, which was a growing social movement of the Twenties. Disclosures such as this make the film’s historical survey relevant within a larger social context.The film, however, manifests a jumble of styles and techniques that will leave viewers feeling woozy if not a bit drunk themselves. Historical documents, newsreels, and photos blend with re-enactments. Voice recordings of Wilson capture his engaging speaking style, while present-day members of A.A. provide personal testimonies with faces half-hidden in the shadows, as is the group’s custom. We observe letters and his wife’s diary entries being typewritten, character by character, by an unseen hand; we hear Yo-Yo Ma cello solos easing the way through montages and segues. It’s a hodge-podge that cries out for a strong guiding hand. But what’s written here are the confessions of a film critic who, thankfully, is not a victim of demon alcohol. Among viewers trying to make it in the world one day at a time, Bill W. is likely to score much higher.