Saturday, November 14, 2009

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

William Kunstler is a fascinating figure, a lawyer who was, by all accounts, normal, with a quiet suburban life, living the 1950s American Dream, until the Civil Rights Movement awakened something within him. He began to take on difficult or unpopular causes defending all manner of undesirable cases and calling himself a "radical lawyer." The story of the second half of his life plays like a checklist of important events. He defended the Chicago 7. He was a negotiator for Native Americans who took over Wounded Knee and for prisoners who took over Attica prison. He defended alleged murderers, rapists, and terrorists, sometimes convinced they were innocent (in fact, they occasionally were), other times convinced, simply and purely, that everyone had a right to be defended. For this he received jeers, even hatred, and indeed it's often hard to reconcile the need for justice and the need for revenge when confronted with some of his most difficult cases. It's amazing that he held so stubbornly to his ideals in the midst of so much conflict.

He was a noble man who bravely did unpopular things so it’s most interesting to watch William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe and hear his actions' ramifications on his family. The documentary is directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, and they do a fine job balancing the film between a recitation of the facts of his life and a portrait of their relationship with him. Luckily, they don’t dip into the well of sentiment to jolt their movie to life. They realize that their father had an incredible life and are smart enough to stay out of the way of facts, even if it means that the movie occasionally drifts too far into territory that could be covered by an episode of Biography. But the Kunstlers have an advantage over Biography in their personal connection with the subject and use it, not to filter the facts and create a gleaming hagiography, but to truly grapple with what it means for a person to be uncompromising in pursuit of justice and how that affects those that are closest to him.

This not a perfect film but it’s a consistently compelling one. The footage is often absorbing; the Kunstlers have done a good job mixing home videos with newscasts. The film is remarkably balanced for such a personal story. I’d bet that no matter what your opinion is going in to the film, you’ll come out with plenty of evidence to reinforce it, but also, having been exposed to other points of view, in possession of a more well-considered opinion. Most importantly, this is a story that deserves to be told, and told well. Emily and Sarah Kunstler have done just that. By embracing their father’s flaws, they have created a film that emerges as a complicated and loving portrait of a fascinating man.

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