MOVIE: Bill W. (2012)

billwThis well-made, fascinating documentary tells the story of Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s.  Through reenactments, audio recordings, photographs, and excerpts from letters and diaries, this wonderful film leads us along the route Wilson traversed in his transition from anonymous alcoholic to sober celebrity — as well as the toll that celebrity, and its incumbent responsibilities, took on his body and spirit over time.

Wilson began drinking heavily at a fairly young age; his parents split up when he was a boy and he  struggled through most of his youth with feelings of being separate from others.  By the time he was in his late 30s, his alcoholism was so severe he was facing certain death.  At the time, medicine viewed alcoholism as a symptom of deeper psychiatric issues, and alcoholics were often treated with ineffective horrors ranging from imprisonment to mandatory sterilization to prefrontal lobotomy.  After a sober friend told Bill about the Oxford Group, however, a new treatment program that focused on putting one’s faith in God and confessing one’s sins completely as a path to freedom from drink, Bill checked himself into their hospital and waited for a miracle to happen.

Believe it or not, one did.  Bill told the story of that hospital stay many times over the rest of his life: how he lay in his bed, desperate with despair, and cried out to God, begging for a sign.  His room immediately filled with a bright light, he said, and he “was transported into an ecstasy.”  He was consumed by a sense of “divine grace” in that moment, of great peace.  “Well, for me that was the beginning,” Wilson says in a recording in the film. “A feeling that everything was completely all right, that indeed now I was a part of life at last.  That I had touched the ultimate reality of a loving God. . . And I was free.”

He never drank again.

Though inspired by the Oxford Group’s philosophy and strengthened by his religious experience, Bill found it wasn’t easy to stay sober. On the verge of falling off the wagon one evening at a hotel bar, it occurred to him what he needed to do to keep himself going was work with others experiencing the same struggle. By focusing on helping fellow alcoholics stay sober, he hoped to find the courage to maintain his own sobriety. He began to making phone calls, trying to find other alcoholics he could talk to, and that’s when a friend connected him with a man named Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic who was about to lose it all because of his drinking: his medical practice, his family, and his life.

The two men soon became friends and partners, and it was through that partnership that Alcoholics Anonymous was born.  Using some Oxford Group tenets as a platform, Bill W. and Dr. Bob began crafting the now famous “Twelve Steps,” and writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, known by A.A. members simply as the Big Book.

Innovative not just in his beliefs about alcoholism, Bill was also progressive when it came to his opinions about equality.  As A.A. groups began to spread, debates over the inclusion of women and other minorities, like African Americans, broke out.  Bill quashed every argument, saying the only requirement for A.A. membership was “a desire to stop drinking,” now the third of A.A.’s “Twelve Traditions.” (Dr. Bob, on the other hand, fought Bill on the inclusion of women in the groups, believing men could not get sober when women were around — “Under every skirt there’s a slip,” he was fond of saying. Thankfully, Bill refused to budge, and the issue was settled.)

After the scrappy start-up of A.A. and the blossoming of groups across the U.S., the film takes us through Bill’s next 35+ years as an alcoholic in recovery, covering his brutal battles with chronic depression, his experimentations with LSD (an attempt to re-experience the spiritual epiphany that had triggered his sobriety in the first place, he said), and the painful challenges he faced as a reluctant celebrity carrying the weight of responsibility to thousands of alcoholics around the world.

At the end, bed-ridden and dying from emphysema, Bill demanded whiskey, becoming enraged when his request was denied — a vivid, powerful reminder of the film’s opening line, “Bill Wilson was first and foremost an alcoholic in recovery,” and of the lifelong struggle all addicts face.

Bill W. tells the compelling story of the “cunning, baffling, and powerful” nature of alcohol and alcoholism, and the beloved, respected, and generous man so many people today credit with saving their lives.  With Bill as its driving force, Alcoholics Anonymous grew from a handful of men to a worldwide fellowship of over 2 million men and women.  As the film closes, it gives us some more astonishing numbers: 30 million copies of the Big Book have been sold since its publication in 1939, the 12 Steps are now used by over 60 different recovery programs, A.A. is in over 170 different countries, with over 155,000 different groups registered.

As Wilson once said, “No personal calamity is so crushing that something true and great can’t be made of it.”  He could not have been more right.  Highly recommended!

[Rent it at | Purchase the DVD from Page 124 Productions]  (Note: if you use that Amazon link to rent the film, a small portion of the rental fee will go to support SALIS, Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists — this is true for all the Amazon links included on this blog.  This review will be reprinted in an upcoming issue of SALIS News.)

Genre: Documentary
Directed by Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino



4 Responses to “MOVIE: Bill W. (2012)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Testing – This is Liz. Very well done write-up

  2. Marni Says:

    Great review, Meggles!!

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