Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino's intimate but handsomely produced bio-doc profiles Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in the mid-1930s. (In keeping with the program's commitment to discretion, Wilson was known by the more familiar name "Bill W.") In an era when alcoholism was poorly understood and often treated (if at all) as a psychiatric disorder, AA set up a grassroots mutual-aid program in which alcoholics helped other alcoholics stay sober.
The film, which combines interviews and archival footage with dramatic recreations, is partly a story of the organization and its growth, though it's presented as an inside story, with seemingly few outside voices, and can feel a bit like a brochure come to life. (The recreations of key historical moments add to this effect.)
Bill Wilson's personal story, which is intertwined with that of AA, is more interesting — from his youth marked with drive and insecurity and early struggles with alcohol, through various stabs at sobriety that lead him to develop AA, and the yin-yang nature of his later life. Wilson becomes a star in a movement rooted in the principle that no individual — or individual's journey — has more primacy or authority than another's. It's a role that troubled him. Yet, as archival footage and audio show, Wilson, in his folksy and self-effacing way, was a compelling figurehead to whom countless followers were drawn, and to whom they credited their sobriety.
The film doesn't discuss the efficacy of the program, nor any larger context related to social and legal aspects of addiction. But the longevity and tremendous growth of AA (and the dozens of similar programs) made it an influential aspect of the 20th century. The film, particularly some of the rare footage, will likely be of great interest to anyone in the program. For those with a more general interest in cultural history, this film pulls a few curtains back to provide some interesting background on AA's origins.