So-called “friends of Bill,” as members of Alcoholics Anonymous are astutely called, number in the countless thousands, but the self-effacing co-founder of the lifesaving organization gets a human face — a deeply flawed but sturdily compassionate one — in the workmanlike documentary “Bill W.”
First-time filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino gently part the veil of anonymity that A.A. shrewdly maintains to tell the story of William G. Wilson, a successful Wall Street analyst who lost his career to alcoholism during the Depression and saw his life come unraveled. With the aid of physician friend and fellow alcoholic Robert Smith, known in A.A. parlance as Dr. Bob, and influenced by the evangelical Oxford Group and the soothing Serenity Prayer, Wilson helped perfect the famous 12-step program that is the bedrock of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Making ample use of audio recordings of Wilson in his many inspirational public appearances, of grainy archival footage and of interviews with people who knew him, the filmmakers weave together an illuminating if slightly undramatic portrait of a man who shaped the tatters of his own life into a durable organization that has positively affected the lives of millions.
Since the recorded details of Wilson's life are not necessarily the stuff of gripping drama (although the solid 1989 made-for-TV biopic, “My Name is Bill W.,” made a game effort), Hanlon and Carracino fall back on some cumbersome re-enactments to flesh out scenes of Wilson's descent into drunkenness, his battles with depression and his lifelong struggle to remain sober. Those don't always mesh smoothly with the rest of the film.
The story packs its strongest punch when it lets Bill W. speak for himself — through recordings in which he tells the tale of his first drink, of the allure of alcohol, of the demons that drove him to drink and of the inspiration behind founding A.A. and its rigorous steps to sobriety.
Wilson, who died in 1971, was indeed an imperfect hero. He was a man who thrived on secrecy, who often bridled at the burden of his notoriety, who never shook off the demons of depression and who carried on a lifelong affair with a female A.A. member, in shockingly close proximity to his faithful wife of two decades.
But in the audio tapes he comes across as — dare we say it?--an amiable gadfly who through steely will and winning charm salvaged his life, and many others, from the scrap heap of addiction. “Bill W.” gives us a solid portrait of a guy who, putting things in a proper context, you'd definitely enjoy sitting down with at the corner diner and chatting up over a hot cup of coffee.