American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Bill W." tells the story of Bill Wilson and the organization he co-founded, Alcoholics Anonymous. What is most remarkable about AA is that for many alcoholics, it works; its current U.S. membership is estimated at 2 million. It has no leadership, it charges no money, it's just rooms of former drunks, and a great many people find it helps them stay sober for (as the program says) one day at a time.
Alcohol is an addiction. Most people can drink moderately. Some cannot. They don't choose to get drunk, but they learn again and again (to quote) that they are powerless over alcohol. To help them, AA uses not drugs, not psychiatry, not expert theories, but group meetings. There is a crucial moment in this film when Bill W., stranded in Akron, Ohio, after a business deal falls through, paces a hotel lobby with his eyes drawn to the cocktail lounge, and in desperation hears himself saying on the phone, "I need to talk to another drunk."
That leads to his historic first meeting with Dr. Bob Smith, an Akron surgeon whose drinking was endangering his career and the lives of his patients. They began with some of the principles of the Oxford Group, a non-denominational Christian fellowship popular in the 1920s, and found they could stay sober by meeting with other alcoholics for mutual help. From their early experiences they distilled the "Twelve Steps," which have since been borrowed by countless recovery programs.
This documentary is an assembly of styles. It incorporates such film footage of Bill as is available, and then uses actors to re-enact chapters in his story. The actors never speak; the voices heard are from tape recordings made by Bill W.; Dr. Bob; Bill's long-suffering wife, Lois, and others. The period re-creations are detailed and convincing. We also see some current AA members, their faces in shadow, some of whom knew Bill before his death in 1971.