Review: Bill W


This well-made doc is the cinematic biography of Bill Wilson, the man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous with Dr. Bob Smith in 1935 during the pit of The Great Depression. At that time alcoholism was treated as a mental disease and patients were electrocuted, lobotomized, sterilized and/or incarcerated. Bill tried to find another way.

Excerpted words of Bill from 1932:

    Some of you people may ask, “Why do these drunks continue to drink in the face of certain destruction? Why can’t they stop?”
    I lay in that hotel drunk for three days. That, I submit, is not the habit of drinking, that is the obsession of drinking. That obsession that has condemned people like us, time out of mind, to insanity and death.

An interesting aspect to Bill Wilson’s life is that while he did remain sober for the last 35 years of his life, he suffered from tremendous depression and suicidal thoughts. Here he is, beloved by thousands of followers who cheer him at every presentation, loved and cared for by his wife who sticks by him despite his economic and emotional challenges. He is touted as one the most influential people of the century by Time magazine, Yale University and thousands in A.A. Yet every day he wakes us knowing he’s got to walk 5 miles to keep himself from going over the brink into a black hole of depression.

This bio-doc is a work of love and honor. However, it is also honest. The filmmakers of “Bill W” earned access to interviews, pictures, film footage and personal memos of secrets so dear few have ever been trusted with access. Was he a faithful husband? Was he honest with the A.A. principles and administration? Did he really remain sober for the reported 35 years? Did he ask for alcohol on his death bed? Did A.A. really work for him?

These questions and an insightful probing into the minds of alcoholics are investigated with respectful honesty. The filmmakers are not alcoholics, are not members of A.A. and are neither promoting nor denigrating any organization. Yet their coverage is sensitively done and their careful objectivity is refreshing in the current mass of aggrandizing info-docs.

A lovely aspect to this bio-doc is the soundtrack. Though Bill enjoyed playing the cello, it is Yo-Yo Man who is featured playing the sad background music. Haunting and tender, the music parallels the story of a man who himself admits: “What ailed me was a deformed emotional character. And I was really drinking booze to either forget the pain of it or increase the ecstasy of it. And this becomes an obsession.”

Bill just didn’t feel he belonged. He felt isolated and socially inept. It was his first drink that made him feel like he could finally fit in. He says, “Addiction is that a belief in something outside of me can fix something inside of me. I can find a new medicine, a new woman, a new boat, a new job… but no, the emptiness is still there.”

Bill’s theory about himself was that alcohol was a kind of disarming self-perpetuating destructive elixir. “What ailed me was a deformed emotional character. And I was really drinking booze to either forget the pain of it or increase the ecstasy of it. And this becomes an obsession.”

Though A.A. purposefully intones the need for a Higher Power, it also is about anonymity, giving up facades and avoiding materialism. Bill purposed the subjugation of the ego, the pursuit of honesty and living a life as much as he could in freedom from an obsession with material gain.

Playing Oct. 7 to 11 at Cinema 21, 616 Northwest 21st Ave., Portland, Ore.

Film Credits
Directors: Dan Carracino, Kevin Hanlon
Writers: Patrick Gambuti Jr., Kevin Hanlon, and Dan Carracino
Featuring: Bill Wilson, Blake J. Evans, Dr. Bob, Chris Gates, Lois Wilson, Julia Schell, Ebby T. Tim Intravia, and Bill Weeden
Release Date: 18 May 2012 (USA)
Runtime: 104 minutes
Bach cello Suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma
Original Music by Gil Talmi

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