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An unlikely genius: Bill W. profiles the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
Sobriety is no walk in the park for Wilson.
Sobriety is no walk in the park for Wilson.

Most people are at least glancingly familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous. Its slogans and clichés are common coin. Its 12-step philosophy for recovering from addiction is the model to which all others are compared. The program isn't widely understood, though, and that's by design. AA tradition discourages members from discussing the group publicly.

The documentary Bill W., about AA cofounder Bill Wilson, may clear up some misconceptions. But directors Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon commit a major misstep, one that all but sinks this well-intended film. They rely heavily, I mean really, really heavily, on historical reenactments.

With their candles and quill pens, reenactments are a hallmark of tacky television documentaries. So many smart documentarians, from Claude Lanzmann to Frederick Wiseman to Barbara Kopple, understand that their subjects don't need dressing up. Viewers can learn just by looking at real people, by hearing what they say and watching what they do.

Wilson's story is fascinating, though, and it's worth hearing. Much of the film is narrated by Wilson himself, whose marvelous, booming Yankee voice is heard in numerous recordings. He's funny and charming. Some of the story is told by AA members, who are filmed in shadow out of respect for their anonymity. They also share details of their own harrowing experiences.

After World War I, Wilson got into finance and thrived in the bull market. But when the 1929 crash came, his drinking intensified, and his reputation suffered. He wound up in hospitals. "If I continued drinking, I would go mad or die," he says.

A friend introduced Wilson to the Oxford Group, whose Christian principles helped him stop drinking. He firmed up his sobriety after reaching out to the alcoholic Akron physician Bob Smith, and thus were established two key AA principles, spirituality and sharing. Wilson set down the program's ideas in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and as AA began to thrive, he promoted organizational traditions that helped ease the group's growing pains.

AA has proven sturdy, and this owes significantly to Wilson's efforts. He was an unlikely genius. Notes one interview subject, "He didn't seem someone [of whom] you would say, 'Here's a Beethoven.'" Still, Wilson wasn't perfect. He was unfaithful to his wife. He took LSD. Suffering on his deathbed, he asked for alcohol. The film gets into all of this, though it tiptoes around the subject of Wilson's philandering.

I wish the film were tougher on Wilson and AA. A lot of people don't like the program, and a more thorough documentary would let their voices be heard. Maybe the filmmakers couldn't figure out a way to do that with historical reenactments.

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