Review: 'Bill W.' cuts through the anonymity

There's an unflashy clarity to the documentary "Bill W." that suits its subject. William G. Wilson, the "stinking rotten drunk" who had an epiphany and co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, was a Vermont Yankee whose life's work was predicated on humility and service.

Today's celebrity rehab news cycle would likely displease him; a true believer in the value of anonymity, he turned down an honorary degree from Yale and a cover story in Time (which later placed him in the top 20 "Heroes and Icons" of the 20th century).

Bill W., as he was known within AA, was an icon to the group during his lifetime — an unwanted stature that took its toll, as first-time directors Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino show through rich archival material, interviews and dramatizations. Enactments can stop a documentary cold, but here they work perfectly, lending a period luster to the meticulously researched film, and complementing the audio of Wilson's sharp New England bray.

Tracing Wilson's first Bronx cocktail through late-in-life LSD experiments, the filmmakers pierce to the essence of his struggles and breakthroughs. To create the 12 steps with Akron surgeon Bob Smith, Wilson pushed beyond the era's limited medical knowledge and the moralism of the temperance movement, drawing tenets from the evangelical Oxford Group.

There are no naysayers among the interviewees. Historians and AA members, shot in modesty-protecting shadow, are here to praise (and thank) Wilson. Laudatory but never simplistic, "Bill W." is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of Wilson, his times and the visionary fellowship that is his legacy.

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"Bill W." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills; Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Monica 4-plex, Santa Monica.

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