Editor’s Note: In recognition of AA’s annual Founders’ Day celebration this weekend in Akron, Points is pleased to present some thoughts on the new documentary Bill W., directed by Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino of Page 124 Productions. Our first commentator is Jay Stinnett, a historian of the spiritual antecedents of the 12 step movement, author and couples coach, and founder of Loving Sober™. His book Loving Sober, a Field Guide to True Spiritual Intimacy, was just published and is available free for download for Ipad exclusively through iTunes.
In this remarkable documentary, Bill Wilson is liberated from the shackles of sainthood by first time filmmakers Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino. A testament to perseverance and serendipity, the film– eight years in the making– combines rare photos and engaging interviews with delightful newsreel footage from the 1920s and 30s
This is no slavish retelling of the story so familiar to AA members nor is it a salacious rehashing of jealous rumors. It is an artful, historically accurate portrayal of the man who captained one of the most profound social movements of the 20th Century. This film is intended to inform and entertain the general population, not console AA members. The cultural despondency in regards to alcoholism in the 1920s is addressed, as are treatments for alcoholism that include Prohibition and examples of horrific surgeries and institutional “cures.”
For those who are familiar with the story, there is new information regarding a number of aspects of Bill Wilson’s life, along with a poignant presentation of the struggles Bill had within himself and the society which he founded. A great service is rendered in drawing attention to Hank Parkhurst’s significant contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous and the tragedy of his return to drinking.
Editor Patrick Gambuti, Jr., does a masterful job blending Bill ‘s correspondence with his wife Lois’s private journal entries, showing their early playful years together in a new and refreshing fashion. More importantly, the candor with which they share their challenges gives extraordinary insight into the depth of their love and committment. Bill and Lois’s marriage is freed from caricature; it becomes poignantly real with all of its faults and foibles.
In outtakes from rarely heard public talks, the film showcases Bill’s sense of humor and wry delivery. His ability to turn a phrase (like “getting Smitty puckered up for this operation”), tell stories, or use himself as the object of a lesson are particularly insightful. The film also presents the oft glossed over emotional toll that Alcoholics Anonymous took on its founder. Homelessness, hunger, and unemployment were the Wilsons’ lot in the beginning of the movement; at the mid point, depression followed the devastating loss of co-founder, Dr. Bob Smith; and finally the weight of shepherding an ever widening circle of drunks weighed incalculably heavily on Bill. The fellowship became something to be survived.
If you’re a student of AA history, you will be delighted to see and hear from many of the people whose work you have read. These historians add emotional shading to various stages of Bill’s life. A singular contributor (posthumous), is Nell Wing, who shares some very personal insights into the struggles and triumphs of Bill Wilson: the years of debilitating depression and the agonizing decision over whether to appear on the cover of Time Magazine cover (refuse in deference to anonymity? or accept and maybe help thousands to recover?) are just two examples of her observations of Wilson’s struggle to uphold spiritual principle. And he held steadfast. This film depicts Wilson as a courageous visionary who remained true to the revelation he received at Towns Hospital, no matter the personal cost.
In telling the story of Bill’s life, with more than 70 years to draw upon, most amazing is what made it into the film, as opposed to what was left out. Instead of covering familiar ground, the filmmakers provide new information and perspective on one of the most significant personages of the 20th Century and include some of the fascinating relationships he enjoyed with people like vitamin therapist Dr. Abram Hoffer and LSD-therapy proponent Humphry Osmund.
Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon have created a significant presentation of the scope and impact of one man’s life. The production values are first rate and the film is worthy of its theatrical release. An added bonus is the haunting soundtrack filled with YoYo Ma’s renderings of Bach Cello Concertos 1, 5 & 7.Hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of research hours make for a very thorough and compelling film. It is available for special screenings at professional conferences and fellowship conventions. And you can see the trailer right here.