Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 4:13 pm | Fair 59º


Cinema in Focus: ‘Bill W.’

Documentary explores the journey of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson

3 Stars — Documentary

For those who are in recovery from the addiction of alcohol, there is one person to whom they most often express their thanks: Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

William Griffith Wilson’s struggle with what he describes as “the obsession of alcohol” is perhaps the best known testimony ever given. Bill W. is the documentary not only of that journey to sobriety but of how his salvation included the desire to help others become free as well.

Directed by Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon, the film is a montage of audio, video and personal interviews weaving together both the man and his global organization of AA.

In his own words, Wilson informs us that he had a difficult childhood due in part to his parents’ divorce and his subsequent abandonment. Overwhelmed, yet a driven and compulsive person, his sorrows and struggles continued into adulthood until he experienced his first drink during World War I. In his own words, it was as though everything changed and he could not stop drinking. For the next 20 years, he gained and lost fortunes trying to get free from alcohol’s chemical grip.

As the documentary explains, the inadequacy of both understanding and treating the disease of alcoholism continued until AA began, and it was Wilson who discovered the necessity of a spiritual renewal to support the process of recovery. This spiritual basis for the ability to live a new life became the first steps of what would eventually develop into 12 steps of individual recovery and 12 traditions of shared community. A genius in both his own recovery and the leadership of the organization, Bill W. seemed to be destined by God to be a significant shepherd to those caught in alcohol addiction.

Although this film clearly includes the spiritual aspect of the 12-step program, for some unknown reason it leaves out Wilson’s Christian worship in Ray Shoemaker’s church and the Episcopal priest’s part in the development of the 12 steps. In Wilson’s own words, he says:

“It was from Sam Shoemaker that we absorbed most of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, steps that express the heart of AA’s way of life. Dr. Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it, he passed on the spiritual keys by which we were liberated. The early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others, straight from the Oxford Group and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.”

Although Sam himself later states that he did not create the steps and only gave Wilson the Christian principles on which the steps are based, he does state, “It’s one of the great instances of direct inspiration that I know in human history, inspiration which doesn’t only bring material straight down outta heaven, but brings rather I think from God the ability to interpret human experience in such a way that you distill it down into transmissible principles.”

The day we viewed the documentary, the audience was filled with a large group of people from a residential recovery program in Santa Barbara using the 12-step program Wilson created. As these “steppers” heard the testimonies of the shadowed faces of the anonymous people, they laughed with recognition at the rationalizations and confirmed the struggles shared by all who are in recovery. It is this authentic and universal experience that makes AA the most effective recovery process for alcoholics ever known, even now 41 years after Wilson’s death.


» The 12 steps of AA are now used for treatment of scores of addictions, not just alcohol. Is there anything in your life that you find unmanageable? What plan do you use to become free?

» The development of the 12 traditions created a sustainable organization that has kept it from being commercialized, involved in other issues, embroiled in institutional concerns and even compromised by media promotion. Do you think this has strengthened or weakened the purpose of helping all alcoholics become free from addiction? Why do you answer as you do?

» Later in his life, Wilson was hoping that the drug LSD would give people spiritual experiences through chemical reactions, thinking that as they connect with God, they can be free from addiction. He quickly abandoned the idea, but why do you think he turned once again to chemicals when God had met him so powerfully?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit

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