William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
Time Out New York Project: Issue #737, November 12-18, 2009
Dirs. Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler. 2009. N/R. 86mins. Documentary.
The late radical-left lawyer famous for representing the Chicago Seven is the subject of this family-affair documentary, directed by his daughters Emily and Sarah. It’s a personal exorcism of sorts, since the women’s memories of their father are less than sunny: When the two were children, Kunstler took on numerous high-profile clients—everyone from World Trade Center bombing conspirator Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman to the accused rapists of Central Park jogger Trisha Meili—and brought all kinds of unwanted attention to the family.
At the outset, the directors cast an intriguingly harsh light on what they perceived as their father’s alarmingly knee-jerk liberalism. Was his reputation as a go-to spokesman for human rights born of a selfless desire to help oppressed races and classes, or was it just a carefully cultivated pose? There’s no simple answer, and both Emily and Sarah, who appear several times onscreen, seem to recognize that. Yet the film slowly loses the sobering toughness of its initial inquiry, and finally comes off as bloodline-biased hagiography. It’s still of value for the illuminating footage of Kunstler at Wounded Knee and Attica, but his life demands a more dispassionately probing approach than the filmmakers, being so close to their subject, can understandably provide.—Keith Uhlich