A Movie Review
If you, or anyone you know works the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – whether in AA, OA, NA, etc. – go see Bill W., the new feature-length documentary film, which opens this Friday, May 18th. You may have heard the lore of Bill Wilson before; some know him as a failed Wall Street prospector, a philanderer or even “the most important man of the 20th century.” Yet, as the movie explores and finally settles on the truth it becomes painfully clear that Bill Wilson was just another drunk.
Novice filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino spent the better part of a decade creating this piece. Their utilization of actors to recreate the scenes from Bill’s various speeches and recordings tends to be a bit jarring. Yet, their evocative use of titles, letters and voiceover creates such a stirring homage that I couldn't help but miss ‘ole Bill and even wish things had been a bit different for him. The filmmakers use strings in the score and long shots of Bill in his daily walks to show “the man apart.” The film leaves the viewer with an aching whimsy, a wish to do better and a hope that it was all worth it.
Bill Wilson was a hopeless drunk, that much is known. What comes as a surprise is just how “other” he felt and how that “otherness” propelled him to not only create one of the most legendary fellowships known to man, but to wither from it as well. “I didn't have a drink until the 1st World War, “ he says, “but the soil was fertile.” He fought for a lifetime to feel better and had to settle for fits and starts. Later in life, but before turning leadership of AA over to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill asked his spiritual advisor, “Will it ever be quenched?” To which the priest replied, “No, never, because were meant to thirst.” The simplest tenet of AA – one alcoholic talking to another – became increasingly difficult for him. The recognition, praise and worship he received from his efforts to stay sober rendered him a peculiar kind of lonely, perhaps intensifying an underlying mood disorder. Yet, no matter what, he never stopped looking for the solution and knew the value of what he had accomplished for so many.
I could go on and on. There are so many marvelous nuggets; both visually and verbally. A brilliant speaker, he knew his audience and how to turn a phrase – incomparable gifts in the land of rhetoric. The filmmakers also assembled a group of historians and sober people who pepper the film with commentary and real-life experiences of the salvation AA has delivered in their own lives. At the risk of spoiling some of the juicier bits I will simply encourage you to see the film. What I will say is this: what has always seemed miraculous remains so. A man, cursed with a terrible obsession sought to arrest it in the fellowship of other men who were equally obsessed. What ensued is life on life’s terms – something most of us still struggle with. Maybe that’s why Bill’s humanity is so touching.