By virtue of the rules of the group he helped foster for nearly four decades, William Griffith Wilson never enjoyed a celebrity that was equal to his influence, or reflected the number of lives he saved. Listed among the most iconic figures of the 20th century, "Bill W.," as he was known, dragged himself up from being a hopeless drunk and founded an organization -- Alcoholics Anonymous -- that now has 2 million members, operates in 150 countries, has inspired dozens of other 12-step programs and publishes a certain book of which 30 million copies are in circulation. If anyone deserves a big-screen treatment, it's Bill Wilson, the subject of Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino's "Bill W."
The strength of Hanlon and Carracino's film, which employs archival photographs, present-day interviews and dramatic re-enactments, is Wilson himself. Although he appears strictly in still photos, his voice -- inspirational, earthy, rich in humor and self-deprecation -- sounds throughout the film, singing a siren song to lost souls.
His presence feels genuine, and adds to the unalloyed honesty of Hanlon and Carracino's storytelling. Wilson was no saint, and isn't made out to be, but the disclosures of his marital infidelities, experiments with LSD and deathbed demands for whiskey make "Bill W." feel it's making a searching and fearless moral inventory of its subject.
The one drawback is the directors' reliance on those dramatic re-enactments, which never live up to the standards set elsewhere in the film. And although the scenes may keep the film from being dryly dependent on archival materials, they feel a little phony. A staged audience listening to the real "Bill W." creates a clash of sensibilities, and betrays what is otherwise a solid and dramatic story, sometimes even a thriller.
CAST Bill White, Abram Hoffer, Merton Minter, Annah Perch, Ernest Kurtz
BOTTOM LINE Sturdy, informed and reverent documentary treatment of Wilson, with a few too many undercooked dramatic re-enactments