The life of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William Griffith Wilson gets the Ken Burns treatment in the solemn, dauntingly definitive Bill W. This documentary, which opened Thursday at O Cinema and screens there thru Sunday, depicts the civic pioneer as dogged, visionary, and all too human.
The life of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William Griffith Wilson gets the Ken Burns treatment in the solemn, dauntingly definitive Bill W. This documentary, which opened Thursday at O Cinema and screens there thru Sunday, depicts the civic pioneer as dogged, visionary, and all too human. This is the film’s most powerful asset, a good thing, considering how much I cringed at some of the aesthetic choices of first-time directors Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, who hammer home that Bill W. is cinéma de qualité with Bach cello suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma.
The film begins with one of many reenactments, this one recreating a business meeting in Depression-era New York City in which Wilson is forced to sign an agreement that he would stop drinking; the voice you hear on the soundtrack is Wilson himself. From that starting point, Carracino and Hanlon take a clear-eyed, tightly chronological look at the man’s life. The filmmakers trot out the expected assortment of audio recordings, archival footage, and talking heads. Many of the latter are AA members, their identities protected by having their faces obscured. Their most effective storytelling device is the frequent inclusion of Wilson’s eloquent letters, which allow viewers to hear from the Vermont native in his own words.
His parents’ abandonment during his childhood and the loss of his first wife set a somber tone that the film sustains for its entire running time, but even though it’s often, understandably, a downer, Bill W. is seldom less than engrossing, particularly when it describes the events that led up to the writing of Alcoholics Anonymous, a process enhanced by a clever montage that gives viewers a glimpse of the book’s first draft with the editor’s corrections in red ink. This movie ought to be a tough slog, but the filmmakers never let the pace flag.
AA has often been likened to a religion, and indeed, Carracino and Hanlon describe how the moment that Wilson decided to go forth with founding the group felt like rediscovering God, not unlike the experiences of born-again Christians. It would have benefited the film to include a dissenting perspective critical of AA’s denominational influence, but it’s also refreshing to see the filmmakers embracing Wilson’s “spirituality of imperfection” all the same.
If there’s an aspect of Wilson’s life that I wish Bill W. had handled more candidly, it’s his love life. Lois, his second wife, stood by her man through thick and thin for 53 years, but what about Helen Wynn, the woman 22 years Wilson’s junior with whom he, according to several biographers, began an affair in the mid-fifties that nearly destroyed his marriage? Carracino and Hanlon handle the subject with such timidity that they even refrain from using the word “infidelity.” Is it too much to ask of a film with such a heavy subject as alcoholism to include some moments of tabloid journalism to sweeten the pill?
One wonders, watching how Bill W. fawns over its central figure, what Wilson’s reaction to such reverent treatment would have been if he were still alive. Carracino and Hanlon quote Wilson himself several times saying words to the effect that he was just a drunk who felt it would be a good idea to reach out to other drunks in order to overcome their demons. At its best, this polished, square-jawed, thoroughly researched portrait makes sure to heed this unflattering assessment.
Rubén Rosario is a freelance writer and video store manager living in Miami. He currently writes a film column for SunPost Weekly.