Bill.W (2012)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino
Run Time
1 hour and 44 minutes
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5

Relevant Quotes

But you do see! Indeed, you note trouble and grief,
    that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
    you have been the helper of the orphan.

Psalm 10:14
Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7:24
Bill Wilson, regarded by many as one of the most important figures of the 20th Century  (c) LoneStar Media

Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino’s fascinating bio-documentary is filled with a myriad of details on the life of the founder of Alcoholics, William G. Wilson. Employing photographs, recorded speeches, home movie clips, correspondence, diary entries, commentary by several historians, testimony by numerous AA members of how they owe their lives to AA, and dramatized scenes, we get a good picture of the man many idolized, even his clay feet. This is a respectful portrait of the man whose work saved millions of lives, but not a whitewash of his faults.

Much of the narrative is supplied by Bill.W himself, there being numerous tapes of his speeches. For such a serious subject, they are laced with humor, the man displaying a healthy sense of his own foibles. He tells the story of his first drink in 1916 when he was in the Army, how alcohol at first loosened his inhibitions so that he was able to interact better with people, but later ruined his Wall Street career. His attempts with self-cures, his trip to Akron Ohio where eventually he partnered with the older man who became his right-hand man, Dr. Robert Hotbrook Smith, better known as Dr. Bob. Borrowing elements from a religious movement called the Oxford Movement and his own doctor who maintained that alcoholism was a medical condition, not a moral one, the pair began to found groups who proved Bill’s belief that the alcoholic needed a group to serve and that the group needed the alcoholic—all committed to serving one another in staying sober. By himself, Bill taught, a person was as helpless as “wretched” old Saint Paul, but united with a caring circle of fellow addicts, he/she could stay sober “one day at a time.”

Bill met and befriended many people during his long ministry, the most outstanding one (along with Dr. Bob) probably being a journalist turned Jesuit priest, Father Edward Dowling, who became Bill’s spiritual mentor. When the priest first sought to meet Bill in New York City, Bill’s friend thought the shabby looking caller was “a bum,” but he let him in any way. Plagued with a back ailment, Fr. Ed slowly mounted the stairs to Bill’s room. Bill also mistook him at first for a street person, until the visitor took off his old coat and revealed his clerical collar. (More on this remarkable man later.)

Bill’s marriage to Lois Burnham is chronicled in detail, her faithfulness to her (seemingly) incurable husband being a marvel to behold. And when his work produced hundreds and then thousands of AA groups, her sharing in his voluntary poverty is equally admirable, even staying with him during his adulterous relationship with AA member Helen Wynn. There are numerous excerpts from her diaries in which she shares her thoughts and feelings. If there is a saint in the film, it is she (and as you shall see, Fr. Dowling).

The “warts and all” aspect of the film not only include his sexual transgression, but also his controversial experiments with vitamin B3 and LSD and niacin. Plagued by bouts of depression throughout his life, Bill found relief, and with LSD, felt a recurrence of the spiritual experience years earlier in a hospital that had inspired him to launch his campaign against drunkenness. His death in 1971 at the age of 75 left a lasting legacy, a thriving organization of 2 million, and literally dozens of self-help groups that follow the 12 Steps of his famous book Alcoholics Anonymous—the story of his struggle to write the book is alone worth watching this film—a book that has sold 30 million copies.

Bill is shown not as an orthodox Christian, but as a spiritual man teaching that the road to sobriety required one to admit to being helpless to solve his/her addiction and thus needing to surrender to a higher power, God as however the person regarded Him. From his own ordeal he understood the Psalmist who declared that God does care for the weak.

As I started watching this film,  I had fond memories of having seen years ago the Hallmark Hall of Fame film My Name is Bill.W, televised by ABC in 1989. It had starred James Woods as Bill.W—the actor won an Emmy that year for Best Actor. That film never dwelt on the darker period in the great man’s life, so this film is a welcome one in giving a fuller picture of this energetic, creative genius. And I use the word “genius” because he has been regarded as one of the most important persons of the 20th Century. TIME wanted to do a cover story on him, but he refused, the magazine having to settle for including him in their 100 Most Important Persons of the Century. The man who helped so many millions deserves to be remembered, and this documentary gives us a fair and balanced picture of the man.

Normally, I would have ended this review with the above sentence, but there is more, because this review was prompted by my publisher David Crumm who in the current edition of his weekly ReadtheSpirit has an extensive review of a new book about Fr. Edward Dowling who was a behind the scenes co-worker with Bill.W in the spread of AA. The book is Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor  by journalist Dawn Eden Goldstein. She is not just interested in rescuing this priest from historical oblivion, but believes he was so influential in helping Bill.W make AA such a success that her Catholic Church should canonize him as a saint. To find out more about Fr. Ed, journalist Goldstein and her book, click onto ReadtheSpirit above. I assure you, you will be glad you did!

This review will be in the May issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.

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