Bill Wilson is revered by millions of Alcoholics Anonymous members for being the co-founder and driving force behind the addiction-recovery organization, and the documentary Bill W. burnishes that reputation, slickly but somewhat dully recounting Wilson’s life and work with AA. While one of the themes that comes up later in the movie is how uncomfortable Wilson was with the adulation he received from AA members, Bill W. is nevertheless almost completely fawning and uncritical, setting up Wilson as a self-sacrificing genius who wanted nothing in life other than to help others.
Wilson’s achievements are certainly admirable, and co-directors Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino do a decent job of putting together interviews with experts (including a number of AA members whose faces appear in shadow), archival photos and recordings of Wilson’s speaking engagements, all of which paint a picture of his struggle with alcoholism and determination to help others achieve the same hard-won sobriety. Hanlon and Carracino fill in some of the gaps with awkward re-enactments that mostly look stilted and silly, and after a while the flood of praise for Wilson becomes repetitive.
Bill W. is a solid primer on the history of AA for anyone who wants to learn more about the organization, but as a study of a troubled and complex man, it glosses over any detours that don’t fit the prescribed narrative, including AA’s emphasis on spirituality and Wilson’s later-in-life marital infidelity and experiments with LSD. By all accounts, Wilson took the anonymity of his organization seriously, and a movie canonizing him, however well-intentioned, seems almost counterproductive.