His name was Bill, and he was an alcoholic.
But William Wilson wasn’t just any guy with a thirst for liquor; he was the self-proclaimed floundering father of Alcoholics Anonymous, which, more than 75 years after its inception, now counts about 2 million active members around the globe.
The documentary “Bill W.” is the intermittently inspiring, sometimes draining story of the Vermont native behind the 12 steps.
Wilson was born in 1895 and downed his first drink in his early 20s. Letters and speeches reveal what may sound familiar to many: the ecstatic impact of that first cocktail.
For the often-depressed Wilson, imbibing seemed like a cure-all that unleashed a stellar conversationalist-in-waiting (for as long as he could stay awake).
There may be no predestination for addiction, but Wilson was certainly at a disadvantage. In addition to having an alcoholic father, he had obsessive preoccupations that started in childhood, and his heavy early hardships included parental abandonment and the death of his high school sweetheart.
It took 17 years and countless benders between that first sip in 1917 and the moment Wilson had a spiritual awakening, leading him to quit drinking cold turkey.
Although he died in 1971, Wilson tells much of his own story thanks to a trove of staticky recorded speeches, during which he discusses his tug of war between missteps and progress. The audio plays over archival photos or re-enactments.
And while dramatizations can be risky, writing-directing team Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon pull them off without conjuring up TruTV procedurals. Interviews with current AA members, bathed in shadow to protect their identities, intersperse Wilson’s story, offering some insight into the man’s legacy.
Despite his enduring public bequest, Wilson’s story is a fairly devastating tale. Long after the drinking ceased, the depression endured; Wilson even turned to LSD at one point (long before it was a symbol of 1960s excess).
Meanwhile, founding the organization actually ended up shackling him.
Initially unable to monetize his creation, Wilson and his wife, Lois, lived much of their life floating from house to house based on the goodwill of others, while his disciples wouldn’t abide losing their leader to a more lucrative career. Wilson’s life appears to have been co-opted by those who lionized him.
It takes too long for the overly lengthy documentary to get to what feels like the meat of the story. So much time is spent on Wilson’s life before AA. And yet there isn’t much detail about how Wilson alienated himself from everyone before he became sober. Was he belligerent when he drank? Destructive or deceitful? It’s never clear.
Nevertheless, this is a real portrait that demonstrates that even when alcoholics quit drinking, it doesn’t cure them of their other flaws. But it also gives credit where it’s due. Wilson was proud when he reached the milestone of helping 100 people quit drinking. He probably never imagined he would end up with 2 million followers.