Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Review: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe ***
Directed By:
Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

William Kunstler was a liberal lawyer who became radicalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was already almost 50 years old. He would take the cases no other lawyer wanted to touch – and at the beginning of this fame, this made him someone to admire. He was the lawyer for the Chicago 7 at their trial for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention. He tried, and failed, to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Attica standoff in the early 1970s, and played the same role for more successfully at Wounded Knee a few years later. He took on the case of a man charged with crime for burning the American flag – and took that fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won a major decision for free speech.

But as he got older, he clients became less savory, more incendiary. He got Larry Brooks, a man accused of shooting six police officers, off with an argument of self defense. He defended, and got acquitted, El Sayyid Nossair, who assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. He even defended one of the men accused of raping a jogger in Central Park – although in that case, he turned out to be right. No one could ever tell if William Kunstler was an idealist, fighting for a cause, or just a fame whore who would take on any case as long as it got his picture in the paper. Least able to tell were his two daughters – Emily and Sarah – who directed this film about him.

The two were products of Kunstler’s second marriage, and born in the late 1970s, when Kunstler was already almost 60 and famous. They hated his defense of all these “bad people” – especially when protestors showed up at their house and they pretended they lived somewhere else.

But with age, comes perspective, and now 15 years after his death, the two daughters go back and examine their father’s life and legacy. Yet unlike many documentaries made by the children of famous people about their parents, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is neither a film that portrays the man as either a hero nor a horrible person. It falls somewhere firmly in between. It’s clear that the daughters admire their father for sticking to his principles, even if it was unpopular, but still do see him as somewhat a glory hound. Hell, this was a man who went on Phil Donahue often – and as Donahue explains in the film, he kept putting him on the show because he knew he would generate controversy. He was also a man who defended a cat on a mock TV trial for crimes against humanity. It really does seem that Kunstler would do anything to get on TV.

And yet he remained a good lawyer. The American Justice system depends on lawyers like Kunstler, lawyers who will take on even the worst cases and fight like hell for them, in order to function. You want to see him as a parasite, then go ahead, but without people like him, the system collapses.

The Kunstler sisters are not the best filmmakers in the world. The movie is pretty much a standard issue archival footage offset against talking heads and narration documentary. And they make one horrible mistake in the animation sequence that ends the film which is completely unnecessary and rather laughable. But overall, what it does, it does well though. Perhaps only a family member – someone who knew Kunstler – could really do justice to the man in a documentary about his life. He was a complicated man – one that no one could ever really pin down in life, and so it is rather fitting that they can’t pin him down in death either.

No comments:

Post a Comment