William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (2009)

Genres - History  |   Sub-Genres - Biography  |   Release Date - Nov 13, 2009 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 85 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Nathan Southern

One would be hard-pressed to identify a more fascinating subject for a documentary than attorney William Kunstler (1919-1995), the love-him-or-hate-him, longhaired civil rights crusader at the center of the nonfiction film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. As written, shot, edited, and directed by two of the subject's daughters, 33-year-old Sarah and 31-year-old Emily Kunstler, this opus wisely undertakes a straightforward, linear approach to the litigator's complicated life. It begins with his childhood and chronicles his most publicized legal battles (for the trial of the Chicago 7, the Attica prison rioters, the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, and others) before moving, during its final third, into the phase of Kunstler's career that alienated just about everyone, including his family -- the years that found him defending accused terrorists, rapists, murderers, and anyone else generally cast out of mainstream America and buckling beneath the weight of social ignominy.

Compositionally, the film soars. On their second directorial assignment, the Kunstler sisters do an absolutely masterful job of interpolating a wealth of archival and interview footage into the material, featuring such giants as former Black Panther Bobby Seale, attorney Alan Dershowitz, and broadcast journalist Phil Donahue. The structure functions in such a way that it manages to concurrently push the narrative forward and trace the ever-shifting public opinions directed toward Kunstler -- and that's an impressive feat.

The filmmakers, however, are never quite content to leave the film on the level of a standard biographical documentary. Courtesy of their relationship with the subject, they also opt to graft a filial perspective onto the material. From the first frame, Emily and Sarah (who take turns narrating) periodically remind the audience of their early idolization of their dad, their hero worship upon learning of his early civil rights battles. That subjectivity is a lovely addition, and it adds an intriguing personal level that the documentary would have lost in the hands of other directors. But it grows potentially mesmerizing when the daughters begin to cite their subsequent emotional alienation and confusion regarding William's controversial choices later in life, especially the periodic ones that seemed to defy all logic and common sense (such as his decision to defend a cat charged with crimes against humanity).

Unfortunately, the greatest benefit one could ostensibly expect from this portion of the material -- the filmmakers using their personal connections to explore Kunstler's dark and complicated side on a deeper level than anyone outside of the family could -- receives only partial fulfillment here, and ends with a return to unbridled reverence of the subject in its revelation of a publicly vilified defendant's innocence. That pat ending represents a letdown, and it's also what holds the documentary back from perfection. Watching the film, one wonders if Emily and Sarah weren't somewhat afraid to go the distance by examining all of the implications attached to their father's later decisions (including -- a major omission -- interviews with his opponents and detractors); the movie suffers for it to some degree.

What counts, though, is that the two women have created a beautifully structured paean to their dad that successfully backs up many of its reverent claims with priceless footage of early civil rights battles. Regardless of one's political persuasion, the picture succeeds at moving one immeasurably with visual and aural testimonies of Kunstler's grandstanding for the abused, the disenfranchised, and the socially neglected. Even if the film falls short of unfettered brilliance, Kunstler surely would have been touched and humbled by his daughters' treatment of him here, and one can walk away feeling gratified at the film's existence -- this was a story that needed to be told.