[Ed. Note: Weekends are for movies. So we turned to our film critic friend, Todd Gilchrist, for a review from the court of critical opinion.]
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a documentary about William Kunstler, a lawyer as confounding as he is inspiring. After decades of service as a civil rights attorney and activist, he inexplicably wrapped up his career defending some of the most dubious and dangerous men in New York. While a normal portrait of such a man might chronicle the events in his life and offer historical and political context, Disturbing the Universe was written and directed by Kunstler’s daughters Emily and Sarah, offering not only an in-depth but deeply emotional chronicle of their father’s fascinating life.
The film opens with a description of his achievements that essentially forms the core of Emily and Sarah’s story: Kunstler used the courts to advance justice, even when it wasn’t attainable through law, and later utilized his deep-rooted understanding of the legal system to secure the releases of some incredibly dangerous, seemingly undoubtedly guilty men. He famously defended the “Chicago Seven” against charges of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; he attempted to broker a deal between the police and inmates who took over Attica Correctional Facility in 1971; and he drew up demands for members of the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee in 1973.
But in the 1980s and ‘90s, he began to represent defendants whose behavior and motives seemed to contradict the values he once fought for so strongly. These included Omar Abdel-Rahman, the head of the terrorist organization responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, El-Sayyid Nosair, who assassinated Jewish Defense League leader Meir Kahane, and the “Central Park Five,” a group of black teenagers who were accused of raping a female jogger. The Five were later vindicated in 2002 when the real assailant confessed to the crime, but what gives this timeline emotional substance is Sarah and Emily’s personal anecdotes and perspective on Kunstler in the context of each of these events—their pride over his fearlessness in the face of racism, their dismay over being “punished” because of his work, and eventually, their exasperation at the sight of his increasingly erratic and unpredictable behavior.
At the same time, while their point of view offers an intimacy that an objective or outside viewpoint simply wouldn’t have, their opinions are not necessarily more informed or insightful, especially after he makes his transformation into a publicity-hungry attorney-for-hire. That’s not to say they don’t speculate intelligently about some of his other motivations—in particular, their observations about the impact of the Attica riots on his work later in the 1970s is heartbreaking and powerful—but even between their insider point of view and a cross-section of Kunstler’s colleagues and pundits, there seems to be little concrete explanation for why he veered away from the beliefs he once held dear and put himself at the center of the media circus.
There is, however, one thread that Sarah and Emily discover, albeit causally, which effectively provides a real foundation for his entire career and his motives, even if their results were varied. According to the two women, Kunstler spoke often and passionately about the untold depths of racism not only inherent in the U.S. legal system or the government itself, but in every single person, all of the time. For their part, the girls seem to acknowledge this in the admission of their initial “conviction” (their word) of Yusef Salaam, who was eventually exonerated; but in a larger context, one gets the sense that Kunstler was constantly trying to come to terms with, and combat, what he perceived to be his own racist impulses, and felt that the only way he could do so was to look into the faces of people who were condemned and considered monsters, whether they deserved it or not, and understand them as human beings rather than reflections of profiling, assumption, generalization or prejudice.
How audiences read this motivation—if they detect it at all—remains to be seen, but suffice it to say, the film as a whole may sway some viewers’ feelings about Kunstler’s accomplishments, no doubt in both positive and negative ways. Unsurprisingly, the documentary is exceedingly fair to Kunstler—albeit in less flattering ways than one might expect—but it produces a more complete portrait of the man for folks outside his immediate family. Ultimately, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a fascinating portrait of idealism gone awry, filtered through his daughters’ deliberate but never dull perspective, which is why it’s neither a platitude-filled celebration of the man’s life, nor a nuts-and-bolts critique of his technique or intentions, but it’s nevertheless as inspirational as it is informative.
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe opens in select cities today, expanding through January.
Todd Gilchrist is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He contributes regularly to AOL’s Cinematical blog as well as Sci Fi Wire. His reviews frequently appear on Rotten Tomatoes.