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How the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous became a reluctant icon

In 1999, Bill Wilson was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century for his role as co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

3 out of 4 stars

Bill W.
Written by
Don Carracino, Patrick Gambuti, Jr., Kevin Hanlon
Directed by
Don Carracino, Kevin Hanlon

"We are not saints." With these four words, Bill Wilson, known to millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, made as wise and reassuring a statement as he ever wrote, and he wrote some of the wisest and most reassuring words ever written. Pity that they never applied to him.

Not that Wilson was a saint, as Don Carracino and Kevin Hanlon's admirably measured documentary Bill W. (opening today at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto), makes sometimes painfully plain. (Among other imperfect things, Wilson was an adulterer and early convert to the alleged spiritual upside of LSD.) The pity is that Wilson was regarded as a saint by so many whose lives he saved by asking them to embrace and accept their own fallibility. And who could do this but someone himself infallible?

Without a doubt, Wilson was a genius and maybe even a visionary. Perhaps even – as one of the movie's interviewees claims – one of the key figures of the 20th century. But his central insight, the one upon which he built a program of self-directed recovery that has probably given hope and meaning to more otherwise hopeless souls than any other form of addiction treatment, is that nobody's perfect. The alcoholic, afflicted by an obsessive compulsion to drink unto disaster or death, especially so. So by accepting this imperfection, and by turning one's will over to "a power greater than ourselves," even the most abject among us can find something like grace. As another testimonial in the movie observes: stopping drinking is not what AA and the Twelve Steps help the drunk to do. It's not starting again.

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Although marred at the outset by the overuse of dramatic re-enactments that portend an extended History Channel special, Hanlon and Carracino's documentary finds its true footing and tone when it settles into the step-by-step (naturally) process by which Wilson, a Vermont-born First World War veteran and pre-crash stock speculator with a tendency to bouts of epic alcoholic abandon, was led out of the wilderness of his own affliction toward a program that passed the flickering candle of sobriety from one struggling sufferer to another.

Getting sober was as simple as not drinking, but staying sober required something much more powerful: the presence of someone else trying to do the same thing.

But the mending of broken lives, especially by means of spiritual enrichment, inevitably leads to devotional gratification. So Wilson found himself in the increasingly untenable position of being the revered spiritual leader of a movement that claimed no denominational affinity and no leaders, and of being a kind of superhuman for stressing that nobody's better or worse than anyone else. If there was a moment when Wilson was prone to drifting himself – as he might have with sex and psychedelics – this was it. Irony doesn't come much bitterer than finding yourself famous for founding Alcoholics Anonymous.

It's this Bill Wilson who eventually emerges so forcefully and poignantly in Carracino and Hanlon's documentary: a once-wrecked, narrow-shouldered man whose gift for inspirational plain-speaking and message of practical salvation suggested anyone could get what he had. All you needed was to accept your imperfection and reach out to others who'd done the same.

Surely the man who said that must be perfect.

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