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Movie Review: Bill W.

When some people think of Bill W., the face of James Woods pops into their heads.

After all, he won an Emmy for playing the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1989 TV movie "My Name Is Bill W.," with JoBeth Williams as his wife and James Garner as AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron, Ohio, surgeon.

A documentary, "Bill W.," puts a face and voice to the man who started AA and sometimes chafed at the hold it kept on his life.

Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino spent eight years working on "Bill W.," which uses photos, home movies, audio recordings and some dramatic re-enactments (which always seem staged and phony, no matter how well done) to tell the story of a man who consistently used the word "obsession" in talking about drinking.

If he could hold the glass or jug or bottle at bay he might be fine, but a single drink would tip the domino that could lead to a three-day bender. It wasn't so much about stopping drinking as never starting.

"Bill W." documents the toll the shroud of anonymity and demands of the organization took on onetime stock analyst Bill Wilson, his full name.

He turned down a Time magazine cover story, the prospect of an honorary doctorate and even badly needed job offers in service of AA. He and his wife, Lois, lived on the goodwill of AA members at a certain point and he struggled with depression and used LSD off and on for five years to explore his spirituality and to recharge himself.

"Bill W." interviews historians or authors along with AA members, the latter presented in partial shadow to respect their anonymity. It touches on some barbaric early treatments for alcoholism but keeps the focus on the personal, including mention of Helen Wynn, who supposedly brought Bill back to life although it inadequately explains their "deep personal relationship."

Despite such lapses, it covers more territory than TV movies such as "My Name Is Bill W." or 2010's "When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story" starring Winona Ryder, ever could. It reminds us of the power of forgiveness, of fellowship and of the ability of an organization now 2 million strong to save lives that might otherwise be drained with the bottle.

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