Bill W. 12/08/09 3:19
The basic facts of Bill W.'s life make for some stirring drama. A broken home led to a lifelong feeling of insecurity. After starting to drink during the First World War, his alcoholism got worse over the years. A promising career on Wall Street was ruined, and he gradually lost everything except the loyalty of his long-suffering wife Lois. Then a visit from an old school friend who told him about the Oxford group, a non-denominational religious group that counseled taking stock of one's life and helping others, planted a seed. Later, in one of the film's most striking reenactments, we learn that in a stay at a hospital, after crying out for help to a God he wasn't sure existed, Bill had a spiritual experience that changed his life. He would never drink again. But the most important event came later. On a business trip to Akron, Ohio, Bill found himself alone in a hotel lobby after a deal had fallen through, heading for a relapse unless he did something. He realized that he needed to talk to another drunk, and after making some phone calls he was hooked up with Dr. Bob Smith. What was to be a short visit turned into hours of conversation, and one of the crucial elements of what eventually became AA was born: alcoholics meeting together to share experience, strength and hope. Gradually more people got sober with them, and Bill played the primary role in putting a simple program into 12 steps that any alcoholic could follow to stay sober.
The movie features a lot of actual recordings of Bill talking about his experiences, along with interviews with some of the old-timers who knew him that are still around, and other sober alcoholics sharing about how AA has worked in their lives. It also uses actors in reenactments of some of the legendary parts of Bill's story—this can sometimes be a mistake in a documentary, but here it's done beautifully and tastefully: the actors never speak, the only words are from voice-overs by Bill and others. The third technique the directors use is to show us sections of letters, many of them from Bill to his wife Lois, being spelled out on screen. This conveys something of the flavor of the times, when the pace was slower and letters were still a favored form of expression.
The milestones of AA history are covered—the writing of what came to be known as the Big Book, and the crafting of the 12 Traditions which guide the AA groups. The later years of Bill's life takes us to interesting and unexpected territory. After the huge growth of AA, he became a sort of icon, and being on a pedestal was a very uncomfortable experience. His missteps, including experimenting with LSD as a possible addiction therapy, are treated frankly and have a welcome humanizing effect. This was, after all, an alcoholic and an imperfect human being, albeit one that, as one person interviewed says, could be considered one of the greatest men of the 20th century. The solution he helped bring into being is now used by over 60 different recovery programs worldwide.