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Film Review: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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PARK CITY -- In his day, attorney William Kunstler was a giant on the American political scene. Honored and later despised for the cases he took on, Kunstler became a misunderstood and controversial figure. Now his daughters, Sarah and Emily, try to sort out his legacy, as much for themselves as anyone, in "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe." The film should find a comfortable niche on PBS or a smart cable network.

Starting in the early '60s, Kunstler was there at every important radical cause in America and was himself radicalized: He was in the South lending his expertise to the civil rights movement; in 1969 he defended the Chicago Eight accused of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention; and he helped resolve a standoff between the Indians and the U.S government at Wounded Knee in 1973. He was also in the midst of the unsuccessful attempt to mediate a settlement before the massacre at Attica prison in 1971.

But after he had achieved tremendous credibility and fame, his reputation suffered when he decided to defend a 23-year-old drug dealer who killed six police officers in the Bronx. Kunstler got him off on self-defense. More controversial cases followed -- a group of accused rapists in the celebrated Central Park Jogger case and the assassin of Jewish militant Meier Kahane.

Amid all this turmoil, Kunstler's daughters were teenagers in their formative years, and their respect for their father was shaken. Why was he defending all these "bad" men? They could barely go out of their house and lived in constant fear of the picketers in front of their New York townhouse and name-calling and worse at school.

So for them, this has been a project gestating for 30 years. Fortunately, they have amazing resources to draw on, starting with home movies in which they lovingly interview their father to local TV broadcasts where they challenge him. They skillfully weave together (expertly edited by Emily) bits of their own footage with revelatory newsreel footage of the major events in their father's life. They even use a brief animated scene to demonstrate his choice of life path while looking at the statue of Michelangelo's David poised for action. And Kunstler chose this path of action.

But not everyone agrees. Attorney Alan Dershowitz stops just short of calling him a hypocrite for defending mobster John Gotti, terrorists who planted bombs in the parking lot of the World Trade Center in 1993 and other questionable individuals.

Kunstler was vindicated in at least one of his decisions. Seven years after appealing Yusef Salaam's conviction in the Central Park Jogger case, Salaam was exonerated and released, and his interview and deep respect for Kunstler is one of the highlights of the film.

At least for themselves, the filmmakers unravel some of the troubling questions that have been nagging them for a lifetime, and Kunstler emerges as a man of principle and conviction who spent his career defending those who couldn't defend themselves. For outsiders, however, Kunstler remains more of a mystery, and though his wife offers testimony, the film could have benefited from more insight into the personal side of the man and where his sense of mission came from.

Nonetheless, the documentary is expertly put together and never less than compelling. It's a labor of love that helps restore the reputation of a significant player on the American stage in the last half of the 20th century.

Production companies: An Off Center Media production in association with Chicken and Eggs Pictures
Director: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler
Writer: Sarah Kunstler
Producers: Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler, Jesse Moss, Susan Korda
Executive producer: Vanessa Wanger
Director of photography: Brett Wiley, Martina Radwan
Music: Shahzad Ismaily
Editor: Emily Kunstler
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine Entertainment

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 90 minutes