BILL W. (Dan Carracino, Kevin Hanlon). 104 minutes. Opens Friday (August 24) at the Carlton. See Times. Rating: NNN
William G. Wilson founded Alcoholics Anonymous, and today his 12-step principles are used by more than 60 recovery programs in over 170 countries, altering millions of lives. This isn't a great documentary, but the man and his message at its heart are very important indeed.
Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon's Bill W. is earnest, straightforward and oddly uninvolving. Footage of the tall, lean, stern-looking Wilson (who died of emphysema in 1971) and the sound of his deadpan voice in multiple interviews fail to bring the man into focus.
The best part comes early on, when Wilson - a successful Wall Street type before the crash - struggles to bring his drinking under control, and then, thanks to a chance meeting with a high school acquaintance in a Manhattan drying-out facility in 1934, encounters the principles that would become the foundation of AA. Another turning point comes when he travels to Akron, Ohio, and meets a fellow alcoholic named Dr. Bob, who quickly puts those principles into practice.
These episodes are illustrated via period recreations, which are competently done.
There are horrific details about early medical approaches to alcoholism - shock treatment and lobotomies were common - and it's heartening to learn that the organization argued early on about how to deal with the concept of a higher power. There's also a fascinating bit about whether pre-civil rights movement AA meetings should be integrated.
The enigmatic title itself is fully in the spirit of members' anonymity. Even after his methods had achieved success, Wilson turned down honorary degrees, a Time Magazine cover and, in 1955, relinquished leadership of AA to the members themselves. Why? He didn't want to be seen as a god or an icon, just a man trying to stay sober one day at a time.